Camp Heartland is devoted to the needs of children living with HIV while promoting empathy and awareness.
In 1991, Neil Willenson, a native of Mequon, Wisconsin, was 20 years old and a senior at the University of Wisconsin. His life changed when Neil read the headline in his hometown newspaper: "AIDS hysteria in Mequon." A young boy with AIDS named Nile Wolff, the story related, was entering kindergarten in the small town of Mequon, and the people were up in arms. Fear and prejudice filled the air. At the center of all of this hue and cry was a five-year-old boy who only wanted to go to school, who only wanted a chance to make friends.
When Neil read this story in his hometown paper, he knew he had to get involved. For the next two years, Neil got to know Nile and his family. He compared his own life-history in Mequon to Nile's. On the sidewalks, streets and in the schools of Mequon, where Neil had found joy and friendship, Nile had found only isolation and despair resulting from ignorance and prejudice.
Nile Wolff was seven years old. Like millions of other children, he just wanted to go to school. Also like millions of other children, he wanted to go to summer camp. He wanted to run; to play in the sun with kids his own age. In 1993, inspired by that seven-year-old boy, Neil Willenson founded Camp Heartland.
Camp Heartland provides children impacted by HIV/AIDS with "the best week of their lives." Since its beginning, it has welcomed hundreds of children each year to be part of its year-round community. Campers now return year after year to summer camp, seasonal reunions and unique Life Enhancement Programs designed to help them maintain and build upon the relationships and skills developed at camp.
From silly songs and late night talks, to hikes in the woods and new challenges like scaling the climbing wall, Camp Heartland provides children forever affected by the isolation and tragedy of HIV/AIDS the opportunity to experience - sometimes for the first time - the pure joys of being a kid. At the same time, these experiences provide confidence, hope, pride, life skills, and powerful memories that give them strength when times are tough.
But the Camp Heartland experience doesn’t stop there. Through birthday and holiday gifts, phone calls, letters, newsletters, referral services, teen life skills training, crisis assistance, and reunions, campers remain part of a vital and permanent, year-round community. Additionally, campers volunteer to travel to schools and organizations across the U.S. to share messages of prevention, acceptance and hope. Year after year, parents, campers and caregivers tell how these experiences truly help to improve the quality of the campers' lives - every single day.
Image and information courtesy of Camp Heartland's web site.