Safe Haven: Special Camp Lets Kids Live in the Moment

By C.K. WOLFSON

A clothesline of colored towels flutters like Tibetan prayer flags. Two campers nap on the sun-warmed sand of the volleyball court. Others bundle together, all elbows and skinny legs, on a slowly swinging glider, or sprawl like soft sculptures on couches in the common room of the youth hostel.

Photo

It is extraordinarily ordinary - the low key commotion of campers after lunch; yawn and stretch time when everyone seems to be draped over something, or roaming with lackadaisical abandon among books, art supplies, game boards, knitting projects and each other.

Ordinary for the 26 children at Camp Safe Haven is a gift - a privilege bounded by seven days in which they are not stigmatized, not held apart, not the subject of concern or prejudice. More important, for a week, they are not treated as if they are their illness. They are just children like any others, not children with HIV, whose futures have not been promised.

"We plant ourselves in the moment," says camp director Tony Lombardi, who cofounded the camp 10 years ago in 1994 with former western Massachusetts health educator Dave Butler. "I can guarantee the moment - not much more."

These are children, either infected from birth or other circumstances, whose daily routine includes an ongoing regimen of medications. Aged eight to 18, they come from North Carolina, Washington, D.C., Maryland and New England. Some, waist high and skinny, refer nonchalantly to their medications - AZT, GCSF - and can explain the function of medical inhibitors, gastrointestinal ports and the workings of their immune systems.

Photo

"They get to come to a place where they feel they're not hurting anyone, not responsible for their family's concerns," Mr. Lombardi says. "We make them the most important thing."

Twelve-year-old Monique confidently says the best thing about being here is being away from home. Gary, 13, and Joshua, 10, shyly say the afternoon with the Martha's Vineyard Harley Riders was the best. Abbey, 12, bubbles with enthusiasm about everything, while quiet Myesha, also 12, seems to view the world with a somber expression. And somehow, they all fit together.

It is regional high school junior Brie Sylvia's first experience as a counselor. She admits, "I was really nervous when I first started. I didn't know if I'd fit in, didn't know what to expect from the kids. But it's not like it's a bunch of friends; it's like a family. Everybody looks out for each other."

The 25 volunteer counselors from around the country, all carefully selected, pair one on one with campers, switching from one to another so that everybody learns about each other. As they pause to offer comments, their words become lyrics to the same song: "very nurturing," "feels like home," "lots of hugs."

Photo

The kids cluster around the counselors, leaning into them, keeping in contact with hands and arms. By the end of the first day, attachments have formed and the camp fairly hums with a casual tenderness that sets it apart from the conventional.

Mr. Lombardi's large Buddah-like presence radiates a contagious calm. "The whole point is to teach them that they can be children first," he says, "that this disease is only one aspect of them. Whatever burdens they carry are left at the boat."

Like earlier that morning in the pool at The Mansion House: mix and match kids in pool with kick boards and flotation toys, crank up the decibel level with squeals and shouts and use the counselors like gymnastic equipment. A slip of a boy, eight-year-old J.P., his torso bound in plastic wrap, comes out to have someone check that his gastro port which is used for intravenous feedings remains properly covered. No problem.

Counselor Vina Lindley informs Mr. Lombardi that one of the campers was teased by three others and is crying in the bathroom. Everyone is waved over to the edge of the pool where Mr. Lombardi sits, and in the voice that people use to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, he reminds them of the need to respect each other: "It's a safe haven, a family," he tells them.

Photo

They nod, then resume their game of Marco Polo water tag. Mr. Lombardi looks at the offending three: "Maybe you could help bring her back," he softly suggests, sending the sufficiently abashed campers to repair the damage.

Amanda Rush, a counselor for five years, notes, "We give them a chance to be the best version of themselves."

Like lunch time: A seemingly continuing rhythm of comings and goings. Someone leaves, another appears in his place. Kids wiggle patiently in line, about to have as much of everything as they want as many times as they want it. On this day it's homemade tomato soup - "One ladle or two?" - tuna sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, cold cereal, bagels and cream cheese and leftover pizza. Someone calls out for paper towels - there's a spill at the serving table. No big deal.

At single sittings they have consumed 40 pounds of potatoes, 240 servings of macaroni and cheese, 10 baked lasagnas and 60 pounds of turkey - "Unimaginable amounts of food," Mr. Lombardi says. "Food is always made available because sometimes appetites don't run on schedule."

Photo

The Safe Haven Project, which costs $30,000 to run, over and above donations, struggles financially. There is a long waiting list of applicants, hospitals who contact the camp with names of potential campers. Forty-two per cent of the people tested who have the HIV virus are between the ages of 15 and 24, Mr. Lombardi says.

Despite the tight finances, the long list of Vineyard merchants, organizations and individuals who quietly contribute food, activities and support is enough to rekindle Island pride: Tilton Rentals, Beth Kramer and Biga's, who supply all the baked goods, a talent show at the Chilmark Community Center, a dance at the Atlantic Connection, games at the Boys' and Girls' Club, karaoke at the PA Club, tennis (Tennis Center), miniature golf (Island Cove Mini Golf), softball (MVRHS) and swimming (The Mansion House).

The Harley Riders, who arrange for dinners to be provided, spend a day treating the children to a cookout and motorcycle rides - a high point of the week. Individuals like Jocko McCarthy, Pam Benjamin, Linda DeWitt, Richard Paradise and Joyce Steward are among those who offer their time and talents.

Photo

Island native Mary Shea has been working at the camp since its inception as the Vineyard Project, when she was 15. "It's an automatic family," she says, revealing that she and some other counselors, referred to as "Safe Heads," have been tattooed with the Hindu symbol for family. "We do little things for each other that you don't see any where else. It's instinctive."

Even medical attention is thoughtfully dispensed so as to make it as pleasant as possible. Medical times are incorporated into the daily routine. Often counselors give campers rides on their shoulders to the medical unit, a converted, decorated recreational vehicle. Most of the complaints are typical, but taken seriously: colds, sore throats, bruised knees and scrapes. Campers take pills or liquid medication, some have to use gastrointestinal tubes should they require intravenous feedings.

Medical coordinator Marsha Natalizia from Boston, with the camp nine years, has installed a precision system: Counselors carry index cards with medical schedules. The campers' names get checked off as medications are administered. There are eight registered nurses, among them Tracy Lessard and Natalina Gomes, who were sent by Family Services of Rhode Island where they treat adults with HIV.

Photo

No one is rushed, and many campers use the unit as a quiet place to relax. It's almost time to leave for the Boys' and Girls' Club to shoot some hoops. But not yet. Myesha is sprawled on top of the large orange, blue and yellow flowers on the quilt that covers the bed in the back of the RV. She's on the phone in hushed tones with her mother, and when she finishes, silently slides into the booth next to Ms. Lessard, nestles against her, and looks at the world through serious eyes.

Contributions to the Safe Haven Project can be sent to P.O. Box 24, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568.