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Archdeacon: Camp brings ray of hope for children affected by HIV/AIDS

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

That’s a lesson 8 year old Tierra Moore taught everyone again the other morning as she stood along the gravel road that cuts through the 315-acre wooded campground just west of Clarksville that, this past week, was home to Camp Sunrise.

She wore a rose-colored Mickey Mouse T-shirt, gray tights and – as the black Ford Explorer XLT kicked up dust as it made its way back to her – a face that got sadder and sadder.

Next to her were her two pink, fully-packed suitcases. In her hand she held her artwork from the week, including a self-portrait that showed her now evaporated smile.

As had been prearranged, her mom was coming to pick her up two days before the end of camp. That way she could ride along to Milwaukee where her 12-year-old sister was in a weekend beauty pageant.

But as the vehicle got closer, Tierra’s eyes began to glisten and when her mom pulled up next to her, she covered her face with her hands and began to weep.

“Mom, I don’t want to go,” she finally whispered. “I want to stay here.”

A pageant might await in Milwaukee, but beauty for her was right behind her where fellow campers laughed and squealed and lovingly teased each other as they played a modified game of dodge ball.

Tierra got in the Explorer, but the tears flowed all the more. Her mom talked quietly to her, then stepped a few feet away and phoned her husband. Soon an alternative plan had been worked out. He would pick Tierra up when camp ended Saturday.

“When you get hangin’ with your friends, you don’t want to leave them,” her mom said. “When I dropped her off Sunday, I told her it would be okay to stay. But I didn’t think she’d start crying like this because she was having so much fun.

“To me, though, that’s a good thing because it makes me feel good. That’s why we have her here.”

Tierra was experiencing what Pasha Rivers – a 20-year-old track and field athlete at Ohio Dominican University who was once a camper herself and now is a junior counselor at Sunrise – had talked about earlier in the morning:

“If you allow the magic of the camp to get you, it definitely will take hold of you.”

And just as the magic here was palpable, the camp itself was incomparable.

There’s not another one like it in Ohio.

At first glance it might seem like a typical summer camp with early-morning breakfasts and bunkhouse nights that are are bookended by days filled artwork, cooking, campfires, camaraderie and, of course, sports. Lots of sports: everything from canoeing and swimming to basketball, kickball, handball, relay races, a 5-K event and climbing ropes, a 30-foot telephone pole and an 80-foot wall.

But there’s also a Club Med nurse’s station where Band-Aids are handed out along with antiretroviral medications for those who need them. And one of the art projects the other afternoon was decorating and filling Christmas stockings that will go to HIV-positive kids in an orphanage in Honduras.

And Friday night – the last night in camp – everyone lit and sent up sky lanterns in memory of those campers, family members and friends whose lives have been affected by HIV and AIDS.

Camp Sunrise is for children living with HIV/AIDS themselves or those who have a sibling, parent or caregiver dealing with it, as well as anyone grieving the loss of a loved one because of the disease.

For many, this year, that means honoring a beloved longtime camper turned counselor from Cleveland who died in March.

“It was heartbreaking,” said Paula Katz, who has been a counselor and program director at the camp for 19 years. “He was just a fun young guy. He had been coming to the camp since he was six and he was 23 when he died of lung issues because of his HIV status.”

As for Tierra, her mom said both she and her husband are HIV positive, though medical advancements have made their lives better:

“We’re both healthy and work and it doesn’t hinder us. And by God’s grace our children don’t have it.”

The situation still impacts their kids’ lives and that’s why she said the camp is so good for them.

And what makes Camp Sunrise even more special has come from its three-year partnership with Equitas Health.

“We pick up the costs for every camper, so it’s free for them,” said Sam Rinehart, the private wealth advisor of Miamisburg-based Rinehart & Dayhoff and the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Equitas. “It’s just too important of a venture for it not to be available to every child whose life is impacted by HIV/AIDS.”

He said the camp “allows kids to just be kids” and have a lot of fun in a supportive atmosphere of love and understanding.

Tierra’s mom agreed: “It is a great for our family. The counselors and staff are great. Tierra’s older brother and sister come here most years too and they love it just as much as she does.”

And that’s why – once she found out she could stay – the beaming Tierra coaxed her brother and sister out of the car to come talk to the campers they all knew and to meet the eight airman from the 178th Wing of the Ohio Air National Guard unit in Springfield who were spending the morning with them.

As her suitcases were loaded onto a motorized cart for a return to the bunk house, Tierra embraced her mom for a final goodbye and then gushed about how that night the counselor said the girls might be allowed to push their beds together for one jumbo sleep session.

Power of Camp Sunrise embrace

As Tierra had stood there weeping, she had been comforted by Alycia “Alex” Rodriguez, a 17-year old final-year camper from the Cleveland area who is known for her kindnesses.

She has first-hand experience on the power of a Camp Sunrise embrace. Seven years ago she was the receiving end of such empathy.

Her older sister Jina — a role model for her and many others at the camp — had been a Sunrise regular, first as a camper and then a counselor. When she was old enough, Alex tagged along with her.

She said her sister was born HIV positive and for a good while had kept her medical situation in check.

“Jina was just a year older than me and we became friends over the years,” said 27-year-old Vera Sowell from Columbus. “We’d talk all the time and she knew my deepest, darkest secrets. I just trusted her. She was a good person.”

But in her late teens, as she worked as a junior counselor, Jina’s health began to fade.

“It kept getting worse and finally she was on home health care,” Alex said. “We had a hospital bed and one night when just me and my younger brother were home, I lay down with her. It was a Thursday so I think we were watching Vampire Diaries. And then she just looks over at me and says ‘I love you.’

“And that was it.”

Tears spilled from Alex’s eyes as she tried to make her way through the memory:

“After a while I knew she was gone. She got cold.”

Jina Rodriguez had died at 21.

“Her passing hit a lot of us hard,” said Vera, her eyes also filling with tears. “Even that next year, I came to camp and for a minute I was thinking. ‘Oh I’ll get to see Jina when we wake up.’”

Her voice became barely audible: “But she wasn’t here. She wasn’t ever coming back.”

And no one had more difficulty with that than Alex: “I couldn’t go to the funeral and I couldn’t go to the cemetery to visit her grave ‘cause I’d break down.

“But this camp, the people here, they got me through it. They pretty much became my family and gave me the support I needed to keep going.”

Finally, she forced a smile.

“Next week I’m getting a tattoo of her on my shoulder. Her nickname was Boo, so I’ll have that with an AIDS ribbon and her birth and death dates. That way I can honor her.”

Truthfully, she doesn’t need a needle and ink for that.

She graduated early from high school with a 4.3 grade point average and enrolled at Ohio State where she is now a 17-year-old sophomore studying to be a paramedic. One day she said she may go into the Army to be a medic:

“So many people helped me along the way that now I want to do the same.”

Campers from across Ohio

Camp Sunrise began in 1994 when the HIV/AIDS toll was high.

In the early years there sometimes were 120 kids – ages seven to 17 — in camp.

“Back then at least half the kids had HIV or AIDS,’ said Camp Sunrise director Keiffer Erdmann. “But now thanks to advancements in medication and education, the number of kids who are HIV positive has gotten fewer and fewer. This year we might have five.”

Although there were just 59 campers this year, they still come from all over the state, including the Dayton area.

Jo Jo Kim – a 19-year-old Fairmont High grad who is originally from Cameroon and now is attending Sinclair Community College – said he had “aunties and uncles” back in Africa who dealt with the disease.

Vera Sowell, who was a Wright State student, said her second oldest brother who was a hemophiliac became HIV positive after getting a tainted blood transfusion in the early 1980s. She said he developed several other serious health issues and died in 2007.

A teenage brother and sister from East Dayton, Danika and Abi, were in camp again this year. They’re both home schooled, though Danika, just 15, will begin taking some classes at Sinclair this month. Both she had her brother skate for area ice hockey teams.

They have an older, adopted sibling who is HIV positive, but is healthy, just finished college and is working thanks to medications.

Those medications have become so effective that a 14-year-old, Cleveland-area high school freshman at camp who was born HIV positive is able to play basketball and run track.

“I used to take nine pills a day,” he said. “Now I take one.”

Education is better too and in 2013, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there were only 69 cases of babies born HIV positive in the U.S.

While there have been vast improvements in many areas, the stigma—especially in these days of nasty political and social media discourse — that comes with HIV/AIDS is too often unchanged.

That prevents many people who are HIV positive from making their diagnosis public.

“To be honest it’s like a Catch 22 situation,” said Mark, the dad of the adopted 14-year-old Cleveland boy. “I tell my son it’s nothing to be ashamed of. He did nothing wrong. But then when he goes to school we talk about him not talking to his friends about his HIV status.”

The biggest problem is just overcoming misinformation on the subject.

Mark told how he recently got a call from a friend whose son had been at their house playing with his boy:

“She called me the next day and said. ‘My son has a rash. Do you think it could have anything to do with your boy?’ I was like. ‘No. that’s not how you get it.’”

Yet with some enlightenment there can be a whole different outlook.

Counselor Chad Vogt shared such a story:

“My mom is very old school and when I told her what I was doing out here, she said, ‘Don’t you have to be really careful? You could be exposed to it.’

“I was like, ‘Mom, no it doesn’t work that way.’

“Then later that year there was a story on NBC about how Ty (Pennington) from Trading Spaces did a home make-over for an HIV family. The episode showed the stigma the family faced in the community and the ugly way some people treated them. In the grocery store they knocked into their cart, everything.

“Afterward, Mom said, ‘I totally get what you’re doing now. I see how special the camp is.’”

‘Home away from home’

Yet at Camp Sunrise, everything doesn’t always end up smelling like roses.

Ask Sandy Monfort, a volunteer from Lima.

Some 15 years ago, when the camp was at another site along the Great Miami River northeast of Hamilton, she was assisting a young camper one night when she got sprayed by a skunk.

“I ran toward my cabin, talking my clothes off as I went to try to prevent it from getting on my skin,” she said with a laugh. “When I got to the cabin, they slammed the door and wouldn’t let me in!

“We tried tomato soup, but it didn’t work. I wasn’t real popular right then.”

That’s one of the only closed-door stories you’ll get about Camp Sunrise.

“I was only seven the first time I came here,” Pasha Rivers said. “It was my first time away from home and I was nervous. But as soon as I stepped off the bus, the counselors were all standing there clapping and I felt loved.”

Then there’s the 23-year-old college student from northeast Ohio who first came to the camp when she was five and now is a counselor. She was born HIV positive to a mother who was the same.

She said Camp Sunrise has become “a home away from home, a place where I can truly be myself and go beyond what I thought I could do.

“And we’re exposed to so many more different things here than we would be at home.”

The latest example, she said, was an Irish dance troupe that came in the other day and taught everyone moves like the slow treble jig.

“A lot of people here participated and it was awesome, she said. “All these kinds of things have helped me feel confident in myself and helped make me who I am.”

And it’s experiences like that that keep longtime camp-goers and counselors returning no matter what else is happening in their lives.

Pasha is not just a college athlete who also works as an Uber driver, but she’s a new mom. She had twins 11 months ago.

“Every summer, no matter what, I know I have one week set aside for my Camp Sunrise family,” she said. “This place gave me so much and now I want to give a little something back.”

That’s the same with Vera, who now works at a Columbus bank. She said with “my first job real job making real money” she’s able to spend it on the campers under her care, getting them backpacks for school or whatever they need.

That love of each other is what makes the final lantern ceremony so poignant.

And then as everyone heads home again, the same thing comes over Summer Gragg, a 21-year-old Ohio University-Chillicothe sophomore from Bourneville.

She’s been coming to the camp for 14 years. Initially she was with a sister-like foster child who lived at her home, was HIV positive and then last September died from the disease.

“This place is family to me,” she said. “I remember one of my first years here, they had this form where we could write down anything we’d change. I put down, ‘Make it two weeks, not just one.’

“Now when I leave, I start the countdown all over again on the way home. I know in less than 365 days I’ll be back and see everyone. When I’m here it just makes my heart so happy.

“It’s a beautiful thing.”

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