For Kids Affected By HIV, Camp Starlight Is a Ray of Hope
In an old house in Portland was born an incredible new refuge for children infected with and affected by HIV. After meeting so many kids that so desperately needed the freedom, support and services such a place could provide, Katie Hennessy told her sister-in-law about the need she saw for a camp for kids infected with and affected by HIV. At the time, Hennessy, now a licensed clinical social worker at Oregon Health and Science University, was an outreach worker with Oregon and SW Washington Women’s Intercommunity AIDS Resource.
"I noticed that there was a fourteen-year-old in one county with almost the same exact circumstances as another fourteen-year-old girl in another county -- both with ill mothers, both contemplating life at such a deep level, both with no one to share that experience with," said Hennessy. "We named the camp Starlight because of the epiphanic moment when we realized that there were not any services for kids impacted by HIV in our state. We realized that we could create a caring community and that these kids would meet each other, have an experience of normalization among each other and not feel so alone."
That old house was where the offices of Women’s Intercommunity AIDS Resource (WIAR) were located. The parent organization to the camp was a novel collaborative project of seven orders of Catholic Women Religious (nuns) who identified a need for services for women and children impacted by HIV in Oregon and SW Washington, Hennessy explained.
After researching similar camps across the U.S. and crafting a proposal with the help and support of Executive Director of Women’s Intercommunity AIDS Resource at the time, Sia Lindstrom, they approached the local Catholic Camp in town and they let Camp Starlight use the facilities for the first three years of camp.
Only seventeen months passed from inception to creation, and in August 1999, under the direction of what was then called the Camp Starlight Advisory Council, Camp Starlight became a reality. Forty-three kids attended that year and the next year that number rose to more than sixty, "with a waiting list, I believe," Hennessy added. "Our ratio was always one adult to one child at camp with the goal not only being supervision but also attention given to kids who didn’t always get a lot of attention due to competing needs in a family."
Creating a Home Away From Home For HIV-Affected Kids
Camp Starlight has moved facilities several times. This year, in fact, will bring it to a new location, its fourth. But when it comes to Camp Starlight, the "where" is not what is important. Ask almost anyone involved with the Camp and they’ll tell you the same thing. Camp is about community, a safe, calm, caring community where the only thing the kids have to worry about is having fun.
"Many of the kids that came to camp in those early years were kids who lived in multi-stressed families with a lot of change and a lot of loss. I recall the first year meeting a very young boy who had moved nine times during the year prior to camp. We also had kids for whom there was no place to really call home. For these kids camp brought a healing element. To see the same counselors and friends year after year [brought] a sense that something can be counted on, something stable," explained Hennessy, who served as a clinician at Camp for the first four years and Chair of the Camp’s advisory council during the first years as well.
The people who were there describe that first year of Camp as magical with talented people coming in from all over the U.S. to volunteer. Hennessy remembered that, "Kids came from all over the state [of Oregon] and SW Washington, meeting each other for the first time but it was as if they had known each other forever. Infected kids were observed by the medical staff at camp and important communication followed to primary care MDs back home that made a difference. Important connections were made between families and the supporting agency WIAR. Vital trust was built."