NJ camp helps youngsters deal with HIV and AIDS

MEDFORD, N.J. - August 24, 2012

The camp is located at the YMCA's Camp Ockanickon in Medford, N.J. It sits on more than 560 acres of forest and lakes in the New Jersey Pinelands.

This week, 97 campers ages 6 to 18 attended the camp. All are dealing with HIV or AIDS themselves, or have loved ones who are.

"Everybody here knows they're alone. They always have somebody to go to," said one staffer.

Most of the counselors were once campers here.

"Nobody judges anyone here," said counselor Jambrina Brown. "The stigma of HIV outside is not here at all."

"It gets them away from all the attention and stress they get from it," said counselor Tyrone Oliver. "That's why I come here, because someone really close to me does have it and they've been coming here, too."

Canoeing is just one of the activities that help these kids maintain a positive self image.

"Or just hiking, walking around in the woods, just to keep the kids happy," said one staffer.

All ages enjoy games like "The Mother Ship," and puppet painting in Arts and Crafts.

Many campers come from tough neighborhoods but learn to trust those who show they care.

"They become kids again," said Michael Buonauro, a camp counselor for 20 years. "That trapped child down in the dungeon of their soul is out!"

"I came here and fell in love," said Camp Director Will Brawner. "It really shaped who I am as a person."

Brawner, a former counselor and camper himself, contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion at age 18 months.

He and his staff understand the isolation and struggles of these campers.

"Who needs to know?" he will ask campers. "Who doesn't need to know? What happens if you tell them? If you don't tell them and someone runs through the neighborhood with the information? Are you safe?"

And there's the issue of numerous medications.

"What do you think it's like for a child eight years to take six pills that are going to make him feel terrible every single day?" he asks.

Will's 2-year-old son was conceived through In Vitro Fertilization to ensure that he would NOT be infected.

"My son is HIV-negative!" Brawner declares proudly.

Because Brawner has been living with the virus, and because there are other Bright Feathers staffers who also have younger children, a special "Camp Little Feathers" for 3- to 5-year-olds is being discussed for next summer!

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