The fight against HIV and AIDS in South Africa is being waged through soccer and swimming, arts and crafts, education and fun. That battle started here in the United States, where Phil Lilienthal, a Washington lawyer and longtime Maine summer camp owner, started Global Camps Africa (www.globalcampsafrica.org). Since its founding in 2004, Global Camps has hosted 10-day camp sessions for more than 3,000 children who have been affected by HIV/AIDS.
The camp is held at a boarding school facility in the mountains 50 miles from Johannesburg. In addition to taking part in typical camp activities, the children learn about HIV prevention, self-esteem, nutrition and other topics Mr. Lilienthal and his staff hope will enhance their futures.
For many of the campers ages 10 to 15, the knowledge gained could make a huge difference. There are 11 million AIDS orphans in sub-Saharan Africa, and one-third of today’s 15-year-olds will die from the disease. Many children are orphans, have been victims of rape and incest, or will face intense discrimination if they are found to have the virus.
“For children of affluent countries, overnight camp is an added dimension to life,” says Mr. Lilienthal, who lives in Reston. “For South African children, camp can mean the difference between life and death. Living in a country with the largest HIV-infected population in the world, many children in South Africa don’t expect to reach adulthood. Our camp gives them the tools to cope.”
Mr. Lilienthal, 68, says giving the campers knowledge is crucial because topics such as self-respect and the myths about how the disease is spread often are considered taboo in the campers’ communities.
“We’ve designed a course that covers issues that are impediments to youth reaching a healthy adulthood,” he says. “Issues such as HIV, sexuality, drugs and crime are not at all addressed in schools and churches.”
The life-skills portion of the camp is followed up in the communities with Saturday club meetings in Soweto, where most of the campers live.
Bringing a camp to Africa was a goal for Mr. Lilienthal ever since he and his wife, Lynn, were Peace Corps volunteers in Ethiopia in the 1960s. While there, the Lilienthals started a successful children’s camp.
“I associated camp with just fun,” Mr. Lilienthal says, “but I realized I could have such an impact on kids. I wanted to do it again.”
That idea would have to wait. The Lilienthals moved back to the Washington area in 1967 to start a family, work and run the longtime family business, Camp Winnebago, a boys summer camp in Fayette, Maine.
By 2003, though, the time seemed right to return to Africa. Mr. Lilienthal retired from his law practice, and his son took over Camp Winnebago. During the time Mr. Lilienthal had been away from Africa, AIDS had taken a devastating toll, which immediately gave the project an increased sense of purpose.
Mr. Lilienthal was able to partner with a South African nonprofit, HIVSA, which helps identify needy children who would benefit from the camp. Meanwhile, Mr. Lilienthal says he e-mailed everyone he knew to raise the money to start the camp.
The camp looks “ridiculously like a U.S. camp,” Mr. Lilienthal says. Typical camp recreation activities include swimming in a pool, sports, art, theater and a ropes course.
The first camp session was held in 2004. Since then, Mr. Lilienthal has earned grants from several organizations, including the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
Washington-area donors have helped as well. In 2007, Tommy Kennedy, the kicker for Vienna’s James Madison High School’s football team and a longtime Camp Winnebago camper, signed up pledges for every point he scored. He raised more than $3,000 for the camp.
Mr. Kennedy said he was inspired after taking a trip to Africa.
“It was shocking,” he said during his fundraising drive. “We saw AIDS orphans living on the streets. It was really sad; you knew you could not do anything to help them.”
Donations have come in the form of camp supplies, too. Many of the children come to camp with only flip-flops on their feet, so athletic shoes have been a welcome gift, as have donations of toiletries and craft supplies.
Mr. Lilienthal is trying to raise money to buy a 186-acre, fully equipped camp facility with a $1.25 million price tag. The prospective camp can sleep 300, which would allow significantly more campers to attend each session. Owning, rather than renting, a facility also would save the organization 30 percent in overhead costs, Mr. Lilienthal says.
“We could have more kids and more of an impact,” he says.
That could go a long way in altering the lives of the next generation of South African adults. The camp has an impact on the children, of course, but also helps train counselors in job skills they can use in many other fields.
“The kids are taking the information they are learning and running with it,” Mr. Lilienthal says. “It’s not like they are learning and then going back to their video games. They are talking about it with other kids and at home. They really appreciate education in any form. Another marvelous indicator is our counselors. They are getting jobs. They learn so much about leadership.”
Ultimately, Mr. Lilienthal hopes other social service groups in many African countries will use Global Camps as a model for more camps to come.
“I think realistically, you can’t have just one camp and have that kind of an impact.” he says. “I want others to copy us.”
Karen Goldberg Goff has been a reporter at The Washington Times since 1992. She currently writes feature-length stories on a variety of topics, including family issues, pop culture, health, food and technology. Follow Karen on Twitter.
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