Floating and free

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Children living with HIV/AIDS participated in a plethora of activities including making their own movies last week at Camp Pacific Heartland in Malibu-a camp devoted especially to these children. Photo by Jacob Margolis / TMT

Camp Pacific and Hollywood HEART give children with HIV and AIDS

a stress-free fun experience.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

Camp Pacific Heartland celebrated its 13th year of service to a particularly vulnerable section of the population-children afflicted by HIV and AIDS-with a rousing, closing-night talent show, performed by the campers under a starry sky last Wednesday night.

The group of children, age eight to 14, donned homemade crowns and faux jewelry to improvise their way through a re-creation of Disney’s “Aladdin,” hip-hop hilarity and a satiric tribute to the “Show Me” state of Missouri with a preposterous spoof of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary.”

The high jinks perfectly illustrated the release from stress and stigma that Camp Pacific Heartland seeks to offer children living with HIV and AIDS. And the staffers and counselors, many of them former campers themselves with the disease, want to keep it that way.

“Eighty percent of the kids who come here live in poverty,” Neil Willenson, founder of Camp Heartland, said. “Over 50 percent of them don’t live with a primary parent and 30 percent of them are mentally ill. That they also have to deal with AIDS being fourth on the list of their problems is sort of a sad commentary on our society.”

HIV, or the human immunodeficiency virus, that causes the disease AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is spread primarily through sexual activity with someone who is infected, transmission from infected mother to baby during pregnancy, or the sharing of non-sterilized needles by intravenous drug users who are infected. Until the mid-90s, when protease-inhibiting drug protocols permitted life-saving therapies, a diagnosis of AIDS was pretty much a death sentence.

“We’ve come a long way in educating the public about the true nature of this disease,” Willenson said. “But we’ve still got a long way to go. Our kids here suffer more from outside attitude than the disease itself.”

He noted that a couple vacationing in Alabama recently was forced to remove their HIV-positive toddler from a local pool by nervous residents (people with HIV present no threat of transmission in public pools).

Camp Pacific Heartland in Malibu is funded by Hollywood HEART, which was launched by Malibu resident David Gale 12 years ago.

“We wanted to give these children, one week a year, a place to participate equally in the healthy outdoor recreation and education that summer camps offer,” Gale said. “These kids particularly need the release, without fearing public ridicule or hostility.”

The public misperceptions of AIDS force many sufferers to live anonymously with the disease. At Wednesday’s celebration, the campers wore different colored wristbands, indicating to media present those who must not be photographed or identified in the press.

“Their communities would not accept them if they knew they were positive,” one staffer explained.

Gale is the executive vice president of MTV New Media and Specialty Films Division and has worked passionately for 12 years to raise funds for Hollywood Heart.

“The summer camp has been so successful that we launched a Movie Team program a few years ago,” he said. Under the guidance of the Movie Team program, campers script, direct, act in, film and edit a movie in one week; they are presented with a DVD of their work at the end of the session.

This effort proved to be so successful that Hollywood HEART went international, recently returning from a film camp in Soweto, South Africa.

“The Cape Town Film Commission was so impressed, they asked us to come back and they’re using the film we made to open their festival,” Gale said proudly.

Willenson watched the campers cavorting on stage while juggling his restless, two-year-old daughter.

“The five-year-old boy who originally inspired me to start Camp Heartland is now 21. He’s going to school, he’s engaged to be married and he’s studying to be a Lutheran minister,” Willenson said.

Such success stories notwithstanding, the children are never far away from the reality of their disease.

“One of the boys from a session last year died two days ago,” Willenson said. “They’re all aware. We try to give them coping skills.”

To help them cope, a variety of entertainment professionals volunteer their time at Camp Heartland.

We had Lorna Luft here earlier this week,” Willenson said.

Last year’s campers were visited by N’Sync’s Lance Bass and Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child.

Wednesday saw gospel star Ricky Peyton leading the campers in a hip-hop “rap-off.” All the campers joined in delight.

David Hutchinson, Camp Heartland’s visiting program director, is from Scotland and said he initially was concerned that the experience of working with the children would be emotionally draining. “But I’ve been totally blown away by their love and enthusiasm,” he said.

When asked what he enjoyed the most about his week at Camp Heartland, 11-year-old Kevin said, “The coolest thing of all was the Scottish dancing. And the archery; I want to be a counselor here when I grow up.”

Fifteen-year-old Sareyea is looking to enter the camp’s Leader in Training program next year so she can one day be a counselor. “The thing I like most about camp is the rope course,” she said. “You climb up all these ropes and then you swing out over the ocean. You’re just floating and free.”

More information on Camp Pacific Heartland and Hollywood Heart can be obtained online at www.campheartland.org and www.hollywoodheart.org