Campers at Ariel Camp Learn, Laugh, and Live
Elizabeth Glaser’s daughter Ariel would have celebrated her thirtieth birthday in August. While she passed away from HIV when she was only seven, the camps for HIV-positive children
which were named in her honor continue to thrive here in Rwanda.
The Foundation’s Rwanda office
held its third Ariel Camp last month, attended by 40 HIV-positive children and 10 psychosocial support counselors.
The four-day-long camp was set against the majestic backdrop of Rwanda’s spectacular Lake Ruhondo, ringed on all sides by the foothills of the Virunga volcanoes. Here a group of incredibly brave young people had the opportunity to forge bonds with their peers and learn from their counselors as they navigate the challenges of living a healthy, productive life with HIV.
The theme of this year’s Ariel Camp was “Smiling for Life,” and indeed, one of the most striking elements of the camp was the cheerful exuberance and energy of the children.
Jill (left) and Sushant (middle) attended the camp with counselors and other Foundation staff.
At any given time you could find campers dancing and rapping on stage to a current Rwandan pop hit, singing traditional songs, participating in three-legged and wheelbarrow races at an afternoon picnic, or creating artwork and self portraits.
Throughout the week, counselors facilitated discussions with the campers on issues related to their HIV status, including the importance of taking ARV medications, as well as reproductive health issues.
At the end of the camp, these young people returned to their everyday lives, hopefully strengthened and energized by the bonds they created with other children, and comforted by the fact that they are not alone.
And yet, the realities that some of these children returned to are often difficult, characterized by poverty, absence of family members because of AIDS, and fears of stigma and discrimination.
When asked what she liked most about Ariel Camp, 18-year-old Sara* said:
“I loved being able to share experiences with other children who understand me…and I loved the school backpack and sheets for my bed that I received as presents.”
She added: “I wish it lasted longer. Life changes again once the camp is over.”
Sara’s parents were killed in the Rwandan genocide, and she lives with her grandmother. She studies hard at school, and wants one day to become a doctor.
Sixteen-year-old Delphine has similar ambitions, but expressed concern at being able to meet them.
“My mother passed away, and I got a very late start in school, so I don’t know if I will go far.”
Delphine is currently enrolled in the third grade, and while she enjoys school, she keeps her HIV status a secret from her school friends.
“At Ariel Camp, I am around children who have accepted their status, and want to make something of their futures, and I am happy to be treated here like family… I also love being able to write and recite poetry, and dance with the other children.”
During the camp’s closing ceremony, Delphine recited a poem in the Kinyarwanda language about the importance of staying resolute in the fight against HIV/AIDS:
“Fellow countrymen, beloved young ones, friends, stand firm, protect your life. Say no to AIDS.”
The children at camp have accepted their status and are aware that challenges lie ahead. Camp provides an escape from normal life for them, and is a place where they get enough food to eat, have comfortable and clean sleeping conditions, and don’t have to try to hide their status from anyone.
They understand there are children in their communities whose lives have been taken by AIDS, but they know they cannot give up.
Ariel Camps attempt to provide these children with the positive life skills they will need to navigate the future. They receive critical psychosocial support and counseling on how to live productively with HIV, and have the opportunity to draw strength from each other.
Ultimately, the camp teaches them the most important lesson of all: It is possible to live a happy and fruitful life with HIV.
to see a photo essay from this year’s Ariel Camp in Rwanda.
Sushant Mukherjee is a Manager in Field Finance Capacity-Building, and Jill Peterson is a Senior Strategic Information Advisor. Both are based in the Foundation’s Rwanda office in Kigali.
*The names of the children have been changed to protect their identities.