Every summer since 1993, kids from all over the country have gathered at the picturesque Camp Heartland in Willow River, Wis., for a fun week of camping activities such as archery, art and crafts, and fishing.
“There is a basketball court where there is a hoop just right I can dunk on,” said 10-year-old Shamir from Queens, N.Y., as he excitedly describes some of his favorite activities at the camp. He also enjoys swimming in the camp’s pool and lake. Shamir says this is his third summer attending Camp Heartland “because my grandma wanted me to be more active.”
He was one of about 70 kids attending Camp Heartland this week, designated for kids living with or affected by HIV/AIDS. Founded by Mequon, Wis., native Neil Willenson, as a one-week, one-time camp, it’s now celebrating its 25th summer, and has expanded to include weeks for kids experiencing homelessness and diabetes, and for kids identifying as LGBT.
Willenson, who was in college at the time, started the camp after befriending a 5-year-old boy named Nile who was living with HIV. Nile had been ostracized in Mequon by families who didn't want him attending kindergarten at his school because he was HIV-positive.
“In 1991, the stigma and misinformation surrounding the disease was really at its pinnacle,” Willenson tells Duluth News Tribune. “I saw that Nile's pain didn't come so much from manifestations of the disease,” he explains. “His pain came from something we can control: ignorance, cruelty and discrimination. ... It's hard enough to have a childhood illness and be faced with your own mortality. The stigma makes it much worse. That was the impetus to create a safe haven.”
Beyond living with and being affected by HIV, Willenson realized that many of the kids were dealing with other serious issues in their lives. Some kids had incarcerated parents, were living in extreme poverty, or in dangerous conditions.
“I see camping as a means to really helping children facing obstacles,” he said.
About 80 percent of the 500 youth this summer who will attend the various camps live at or below the poverty level, said Stefanie Tywater-Christiansen, development manager for One Heartland, which operates the various camps now offered.
“The goal is to make sure there are as few barriers as possible to come to camp,” she said, and that includes picking kids up at home and offering free flights and anything for camp they didn't bring or couldn't afford. “Some kids show up with empty backpacks, so there is a room full of clothes and supplies,” explains Tywater-Christiansen.
The camp operates from funding from the Angel Flight organization (based in Kansas City), grants, and donations. Former Minnesota Twins baseball player, Paul Molitor, and Steven Greenberg, a member of the band Lipps, Inc. (who wrote the song, Funkytown) are donors.
At this week’s camp, about half of the attendees are living with HIV and the other half have a close relative (usually a parent) that is HIV-positive. Along with typical camp activities at Camp Heartland, which is geared for kids ages 7-15, counselors each night give kids the chance to talk about their situations, if they want to.
“They can relax because they aren't having to hide or disguise their situation, or put a public face on it,” said Dr. Randy Warren, a retired pediatrician who volunteers at the camp.
Cassidy Wallisch, 18, one of the many campers who return to become counselors, said the camp was “the first place I had a chance to feel safe… It gave me room to breathe and reassess myself and my life,” recalls Wallisch. “It holds a close place in my heart.”