What are you grateful for? That’s what campers answered before each meal. Me, I’m grateful for having recently spent the most incredible 7 days in the most heavenly location, with the most amazing people. The camp was at the top of a hill in Malibu, with a spectacular view of the deep blue ocean, a couple distant islands, red sunsets and a million stars at night. The weather was perfect too, with warm sunny days and cool evenings, with crisp fresh air. The camp had a cafeteria, where we were served three very good buffet style meals per day, an amphitheater, for movies and performances, several other areas designed for various activities, a pool and cabins, complete with electricity, hot showers, and indoor plumbing.
Aside from the fabulous surroundings, however, the average visitor might think that this was just another typical summer camp, with about 80 of your average, run-of-the-mill 15 to 20-year-olds. They came from around the country, with a mix of ethnic and religious background. Still, everyone seemed to get along, as most people will, in an atmosphere void of stigmas and prejudices.
Likewise, there seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary about the collection of 20 or so staff members and volunteers. The camp leaders seemed to be most concerned about things running properly and making sure that everyone followed the rules. The “cheerleaders” or program directors, gathered the campers together and got them to sing songs or do some other group activity before and after meals. The counselors were the cabin leaders and responsible for keeping track of their group of campers.
Though we had most of the amenities of home, we were still very isolated on our mountaintop. We had no television, no radio and little to no wifi or cell phone reception. That didn’t really matter much, however, since there was little free time to use our phones and most of that time was spent uploading our photos onto Facebook to share with our friends at home. About the only news that reached us all week was the suicide of one of the masters of comedy. We all mourned his passing and reflected on how devastating depression can be for the individuals and their families; which many of us could relate to. In a sense, the camp became our own spiritual retreat where we could commune with Mother Nature, God and each other. What are you grateful for?
I know, millions of people have gone to summer camp before and have had a great time, but nothing life-changing.
So, what made this camp different and more spiritually uplifting than any other camp experience? Three things:
1. This was an Arts Camp, which means that every camper was assigned to one of several art skills, such as visual arts (painting, drawing, etc.), music, acting, culinary arts (preparing, presentation and photographing), fashion, creative writing and documentary filmmaking. Campers spent 4 hours a day (two 2 hour sessions) with their skill leader and/or guest teachers. The culmination of their work was at a dinner and Gala Celebration, in Academy Award style, where the campers and counselors from each discipline proudly displaying their finished projects. That night the stars shone a little brighter, the campers grew a little taller and the atmosphere became electric with all of the positive energy they generated. That night our campers were superstars!
2. All of the campers either had HIV or have been affected by HIV/aids, though you would never have known it without talking to them and, of course, everyone’s story was unique. True, some contracted the disease through unprotected sex and some of them are gay, though the two are not necessarily connected. Some campers were born with the disease. Then, there was the brother and sister, whose mom contracted HIV from a transfusion of infected blood and, before they found out, she infected their dad. Now, the siblings worry whenever anyone in the family gets so much as a cold. And let’s not forget how cruel kids can be.
The positive energy and the support, from everyone and towards everybody else, created an atmosphere at camp that was so safe, nonjudgmental and supportive, that it allowed everyone the opportunity to breathe and experience the wonders of nature. It allowed everyone to believe in themselves a little more, to take a chance and to go for the gold. It helped many of the campers and volunteers, to find the courage and the strength to stare down their demons, to overcome them and to share their feelings, some for the first time. It allowed everybody to grieve, and it helped everyone to begin to heal and begin to live, to feel and to laugh again.
Everyone was encouraged to make new friends, while they enjoyed catching up with old friends. Everyone was encouraged to try something new, to be creative and to express themselves in positive ways. Everyone was encouraged to dream, to have something to strive for and to see the endless possibilities in life. What are you grateful for?
3. The third and final difference between Camp Hollywood HEART and any other is that David Gale, the founder of Hollywood HEART, is the most amazing man and one of the most humble person that I have ever met. Camp Hollywood HEART is his vision and the willingness of everyone he asks to come up the mountain, to help make the week special, is a tribute to his character and personality. Who are you grateful for?
What defines a person? Does anyone’s sexual or gender preference or the color of their skin really make them different? Does it make them any less human? Does diabetes or asthma define anybody’s character? Should HIV, diabetes, depression or even a physical disability define who a person is? NO! What defines a person is the accumulation of life experiences and that person’s reactions, how that person lives, learns and grows.
No, Camp Hollywood HEART did not remove the pain of losing a loved one or the fear of losing one or the bullying the ensues because of it. Camp did not and will never be able to answer questions like, “Why?”, but we can’t change the past. We can only move forward.
Camp did help us to realize that most people have had crises and tragedies in their lives, too, but they found the strength and a group of supportive friends to help them through the bad times and to realize that there are still things to be grateful for. It helped us all to realize and/or to remember that, despite everything that life throws at you, there are a myriad of people and reasons to live, love and be grateful for. Camp helped us to remember that there are many more happy occasions to come and that we touch more people’s lives than we can ever imagine. “I shall pass this way but once; any good that I can do or any kindness to any human being; let me do it now”.
My experience at Camp Hollywood HEART helped bring me peace of mind and the strength to continue to fight the good fight; by helping others, I help myself. I’m grateful for all of the people that I met at Camp.
What are you grateful for?
Contributed by Camp Hollywood HEART Volunteer, Larry Spinner