Learn about Camp Sunburst for Kids with HIV
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KVIE teaches you all about Camp Sunburst, a camp for kids with HIV.


Peace echoes across the mountain tops as the sun awakens another day in a quiet moment of paradise. For years Camp Sunburst has provided a week-long haven, a respite during summers for kids infected and affected by HIV and AIDS. As those children grow up, the country is witnessing a new face of AIDS. A population of teenagers who, thanks to medications, are living longer and healthier lives. Robert Shea, Jr. : I’m just thankful to be living. Robert Shea, junior is 13 and was born with the virus. He knows only too well about the stigma that comes with living with HIV/AIDS. Robert Shea, Jr. : I know some kids they’re always saying that I’m going to die too early. Like there’s this one kid who thinks he’s real tough and he’s just a wanna be bully. I don’t say anything. I just walk away. I’d rather not start anything. I think sometimes it can be messed up because people think like, oh, this kids going to get near us and he’s going to give us AIDS. Robert’s dad – Robert Senior, also has HIV and volunteers as a counselor at the camp. Both contracted the virus from Robert Junior’s mother. She no longer lives with them and life is far from easy for this family of two. That makes a week in the woods together more magical time than ever. Robert Shea, Jr. : Magical is what I’d say. Everybody’s heart here is in the center and its just one big family. We all love each other and support each other. They’ve been through the same thing we’re going through, infected or affected. And it’s nice being in the same environment with people in the same predicament that we’re in. Camp Sunburst was created by doctor Geri Brooks in the late 1980’s. A psychologist, she wanted to give young people living with the virus, or affected by it, a safe place where they could have fun, socialize, and get the facts. Dr. Geri Brooks: Now that we have our first generations of children in the United States that were born with the virus that are living into adult years…13…14…15…16…there’s a lot of support that’s needed to get them to their young adult life where they can marry and have families and even appreciate what they have with taking those medications. And that’s a challenge. Nurse Nina Carson, RN: We’re in club med: a little infirmary that’s part of the camp. And we have our little two rooms setup here and sometimes a lot of the medications stuff goes on here, but it's also kind of a big social scene because we have the candy and the Gatorade. At least twice a day…sometimes guided by flash lights, campers make the trek to club med. Nurse Nina Carson, RN: Since so many of the kids are infected with HIV and they have so many medications – as many as the last child said: 21 pills a day. Robert Shea, Jr. : The hardest part I would say taking my medicine. Because it’s a thing you do everyday. A lifetime of medications. Some teenagers eventually get tired and against doctors orders will simply quit taking them. Most will die. Dr. Geri Brooks: They stop taking their medication and unfortunately what happens after a period of time and see that they cant go back on the protocols they were on or they begin opportunistic illness and then they die very shortly thereafter. Now we have three quilts, reminds of the devastation of the virus. And that devastation continues. Of all new infections today, half are in young people between the ages of 18 and 25. At camp, teenagers learn that AIDS – acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. The virus is spread through high risk behaviors including unprotected sex that means not using a condom, and sharing needles. Getting tested and knowing your status is imperative. Dr. Neil Flynn: If you can find out you have HIV early these days, there is no reason for an early death. HIV is transmitted from an infected person to another through blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. Ted Ross: The bottom line with HIV is that its 100 per cent preventable. Prevention. That’s the goal for teenagers at Camp Sunburst. They don’t want to spread the virus if they have it…or contract it if they don’t. Lori Blackford is at camp because both of her parents are infected with HIV/AIDS. A ropes course and day long wilderness experience builds confidence and self esteem for these young campers. Lori Blackford: We all share the same feelings and problems. Dr. Geri Brooks: We've certainly looked at the issue how to create programs or prevention and education around HIV and there's been a tremendous enhancement around education and prevention but it’s still happening. And young people are still dying. Dr. Brooks will never forget 12 year old Joey Benko. Dr. Geri Brooks: Joey was a great little spirit. He was a lively young child. When I first met Joey he was five years old. He was a great little spirit. He had a dream and that dream was to pet a Bengal tiger. And so I called marine world. And they allowed me to bring him there and to hold him and he was able to have his wish his final wish come true. And he died the day after that. He was aware when he put his hand on the tiger, he was aware. He had his wish fulfilled before he died. It was such an honor to be with him through his life and his death.