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Campers Say Goodbye To Ohio HIV And AIDS Retreat, As Cases Decline

Jocelyn Robinson
Campers gather for a group photo one last time at Camp Sunrise, Ohio’s only summer camp for kids affected by HIV and AIDS.";

It’s drizzling at Camp Sunrise, Ohio’s only camp for kids affected by HIV and AIDS, but the rain hasn’t dampened spirits for reunion day.

Prior staff and campers arrive at the sprawling Recreation Unlimited complex outside Delaware, Ohio, to hang out and sing camp songs like “Ride the Purple Pony.” This is a bittersweet reunion. After 24 years, Camp Sunrise is closing.

Camp Sunrise has been around since the mid-1990s, with funding tied to children who are HIV-positive. For those children, the annual one-week summer camp has meant a chance to escape, a time to get away, have fun and connect with other HIV-positive kids. 

Over the last two decades, prevention strategies have been successful in reducing mother-to-child transmissions. Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control reports fewer than 100 babies were born HIV-infected in 2016.

Camp director Keiffer Erdmann says fewer infection cases means fewer campers. There are now only seven HIV-positive campers out of 68, too few to justify the nearly $100,000 program budget, which covers the entire cost of camp, including transportation, for every camper.

“Back in the mid-1990s, we always thought someday Camp Sunrise won’t be necessary, and I think that time has finally come," he says, "although it’s hard when it's a pretty powerful, pretty magical week and strong relationships get built.”

Those relationships are evident when a small group of campers and staff gathers at the camp nurse’s station, better known to many here as Club Med, to reminisce and look through photo albums.

They’re former counselors, nurses, and directors. Many are in their late forties, and many have been involved with the camp nearly half their lives. They’ve become family, with a bond forged in the early days of the AIDS crisis.

Christin Brown, who founded Camp Sunrise, was inspired by a camp in Northern California for kids with HIV, back when the diagnosis was seen as a death sentence. And when Ohio’s camp first opened in 1995, many of the campers were very sick.

Pat Knight, Camp Sunrise's nurse, remembers what it was like back then. She says the picture is dramatically different today.

“In the early years, when we had over 100 campers, we had so many medications that we could line them up along the whole length of the counter spaces,” Knight says, pointing across the room. “So it was a major, major job trying to get all the medicines ready, and now this is all we’re left with: one tiny regular kitchen shelf with medicines for our campers."

With advances in prevention and treatment, there’s less of a need for HIV and AIDS-specific camps, and fewer resources available for programs like Camp Sunrise.

Camp Sunrise has been funded for the last three years by nonprofit organization Equitas Health. But, that funding has run out.

While Ohio's camp will no longer exist after this summer, the camp family is not dissolving. A get-together, planned before the closing was announced, is slated for September.

There will still be a handful of other HIV camps across the country, including Camp Starlight in Oregon, Camp Dreamcatcher in Pennsylvania, and others in New Mexico, California, Texas, Georgia, Kentucky and Connecticut.

Increasingly, many children with HIV around the country can attend summer camp along with other kids who aren’t infected. Many of the kids with an HIV-positive family member might never even know about it.

But that wasn’t always the case. Summer Gragg, who is 22, lost her sister to AIDS several years ago.

Summer started coming to Camp Sunrise with her sister when she was little, and she worked her way up through the ranks to become a counselor two years ago. She's taking the camp's closing pretty hard.

"I’m heartbroken," she says. "Oh my gosh. It’s very tough. It’s really heartbreaking because this is what I look forward to every year. January will come around and I’ll be like, only eight more months, eight more months until I see the people I love."

Camp reunion day winds down with a carnival – popcorn, face-painting and silly games. Campers redeem tickets for colorful plastic toys and trinkets, while everyone eats tacos and ice cream from food trucks that pulled up to the campgrounds.

Counselor Vera Sowell also came to camp as young child with her sibling, who was HIV-positive. Now, she’s been on the Camp Sunrise staff for 10 years.

Camp has been a big part of her life, she says, and she’s sad to see it end. But she knows the camp’s closing has a silver lining.

"Back in the day, like there were over 100 children who had HIV or AIDS,” Sowell says. “But now it’s probably what, down to less than 10? You can live a longer fuller life with HIV and AIDS. It’s under control more, like, kids are living full, healthy lives. So, to know like our kids aren’t dying anymore from this disease, that’s amazing.”