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Vacation from HIV: Camp a 'safe space' for kids affected by disease

Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

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Hardly any of David Garcia's friends notice the pills he swallows three times a day. The 13-year-old doesn't act sick, even though he is infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

"I go out to play, and I just forget," said David, of Staten Island. "I act like a normal kid - which I am. Then I come home and my dad says, 'David, you've got to take your meds.'-"

This week he is visiting an intimate summer camp where HIV doesn't have to be a secret. Camp Hope and Life, at the Hope Renewal Center in northwestern New Jersey, is free to any child who is HIV- positive, or whose parents carry the virus. Of the 14 campers, six are infected.

"We just have fun here, without worrying about anybody saying anything," David said. "You're free."

It's standard camp fare: Children sleep in bunks, swim in the lake, paddle canoes, share campfire stories, and work on arts and crafts projects. They meet in their cabins for rap sessions and compete in camp-wide sports competitions.

There are differences. There are nearly as many counselors as children. A nurse dispenses anti-AIDS drug cocktails to children who carry the virus. Campers attend daily classes about nutrition, hygiene, and HIV awareness.

Still, "it's not some kind of disease camp," said Justin LiGreci, the camp's head counselor and founder. "We have fun."

LiGreci, a youthful 21, is the camp's official leader and emotional center. The Staten Island college student discovered he was HIV-positive a decade ago; he likely contracted the virus from his birth mother.

He was vocal about the virus, and suffered ridicule and classmates' abuse. His reaction: talk a little bit louder.

So with his adoptive mother, Melody Moreau, he founded the Justin LiGreci HIV and AIDS Foundation. The organization's primary goal: Create "safe spaces," where children

infected with HIV can share their experiences without fear of persecution.

"When their friends find out they are infected, kids can be vicious," said Moreau, 43. "It's like another form of leprosy."

This is the fourth year LiGreci and Moreau have staged the weeklong summer camp. It's a chance to sort through a year's worth of feelings, about growing up, and growing up with HIV, LiGreci said.

"The kids see that there's other people going through what they are going through," he said. "They don't have to act tough. They know they don't have to fear HIV and AIDS, they just need to be careful."

Together, LiGreci and Moreau dream up the activities, create the schedule, call social service organizations to attract campers, and go door-to-door to solicit private donations. They have expanded their recruiting efforts from Staten Island to all boroughs of New York City, and are hoping to attract more campers from New Jersey. This year, they recruited six children.

The foundation, which has an annual operating budget of under $50,000, pays all expenses for the camp and has no paid employees.

It operates with pluck - and small bits of charity. Dave Egan, a Clifton accountant, took the foundation on pro bono after he met the pair. Then he joined the board of trustees, and volunteered to drive children to and from the Warren County camp this year.

"It feels like family," said Egan, who has a relative infected with HIV. "Once I became aware of what they were doing, I had to get involved. We get very few grants, and no public money."

At camp, while the children are brought together by HIV, it's hardly the topic of conversation. They prefer to gossip about A-Rod and their favorite wrestling stars.

Maybe it's because everyone either has HIV or knows someone in their family who does. But the virus is a universal, so it doesn't seem like such a big deal - some campers talk about it, some don't.

It's not that the virus goes away. They still take pills. They still take rests. Counselors, volunteers on break from local colleges, carry rubber gloves in case someone gets a scrape.

But having HIV is just - normal.

"There aren't as many worries for them up here," said counselor Beth Reardon, 22, of New Brunswick. "They actually get to be kids for a week."

Each of the past four summers, Nikita Williams, 17, has come to Camp Hope and Life. Now a junior counselor, she shifts conversation easily between a new stuffed animal and classmates she has watched die of AIDS.

"One of my best friends is in the last stage, the part where you wear Pampers," said Nikita, who lives in Newark. Her mother is infected with the virus.

She comes back to camp every year to renew ties with LiGreci and Moreau, and lend support to younger campers.

"Justin doesn't even act like he has it. He acts like a regular kid," she said. "We all learn that you don't have to be scared."

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(C) 2004 The Record, Bergen County, NJ. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved


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