The Magic of Camp Starlight: A Place for Kids Affected by HIV
“I could be the dance teacher.”
It came out of my mouth before I could even think about it. I was sitting in my little sister’s living room. She was telling me about Camp Starlight, a camp for kids affected by HIV. She had been volunteering with the nonprofit organization for nearly 15 years at that point, since the second year of its existence.
Their dance teacher was off onto another adventure and Rebecca, my little sister, said they needed a new one. I had been a camp counselor for many years when I was in my teens and early 20s and I had taught dance to kids for a number of camps and programs.
“Sure!” she said. And just like that, a whole new chapter in my life opened up.
Camp Starlight serves kids in Oregon and parts of Washington, providing a week-long summer camp for kids infected with HIV or affected by HIV. The camp is free for kids. Everyone who works on it is a volunteer and all the funding comes from generous donations.
That was two years ago now. I was the dance teacher for two summers and then last winter was elected to the Camp Starlight Commission as the Program Director. I was supposed to simply shadow the person who was in the position at the time. But family obligations left her unable to attend camp and there I was – nothing like Baptism by fire.
I was nervous. I mean it’s not rocket science. Create a schedule for who goes to arts & crafts and canoe and the pool. Organize evening activities like campfires and shows and cookouts. Schedule outside guests to bring in a bird show and a pond guru and a trio of horses and trainers for riding.
I was also nervous because, although on the outside it’s just a camp where kids have a week to play kick ball or hike in the woods or sing camp songs, Camp Starlight is much more than that. It is a week of freedom and joy and levity for kids whose lives are generally characterized by anything but.
As far as we have come, there is still a heavy burden of stigma that kids infected with HIV or kids who have family members with HIV must bear. And Camp Starlight is a week free of stigma, where kids can just be kids.
No judgments. No “your mom got HIV the bad way and my mom got it for good way” talk. No outings or shaming or fear mongering. Camp Starlight means the opportunity to talk about HIV… or not. It is freedom to disclose… or not. It means a week where the biggest decision is whether to have one s’more or two, whether to go swimming or go to the tree swing or whether to sleep on the top bunk or the bottom.
Camp Starlight went brilliantly this year. There were a number of us in new leadership positions as well as a bunch of new counselors. All of us – new and old – were focused on making it an amazing experience for these kids that we adore, whether we have known them for years or met them for the first time this summer.
As volunteers, we come from all walks of life. All walks. Successful movers and shakers. Stay-at-home grandmas. Math whizzes. Actors. Well-off. Scraping by. Gay. Straight. HIV-positive and HIV-negative. You name it. But the week at Camp, we are a seamless team, and we won the game. In fact, we won the pennant, the championship and the Super Bowl ring.
Kids boarded the bus home with memories of being stars in the Camp Starlight talent show, Night of 1000 Stars; of roasting hot dogs at horse camp and riding around the ring on noble steeds; of being soccer hot shots in a game with real live soccer hot shots, the NetRippers; and of being celebs at the hottest party in town at the camp dance.
It was magic. Camp Starlight is magic. And I am honored to be part of the team that says “abracadabra” every year and makes the weight of HIV disappear for at least one week with what seems to be a simple wave of a magic wand.
To learn more about Camp Starlight and to donate, visit www.camp-starlight.org.