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Between Swimming And Archery, This Camp Helps Kids Overcome The Stigma Of HIV/AIDS

The Tataya Mato week at Jameson Camp in Indianapolis is a free sleep away camp for children impacted by HIV/AIDS.
The Tataya Mato week at Jameson Camp in Indianapolis is a free sleep away camp for children impacted by HIV/AIDS.

Brad Higgins has been groundskeeper at Jameson Camp for 20 years. Back when he started, the subject of HIV and AIDS was so loaded with stigma that lots of people wouldn't talk about the disease, sometimes even within families.

Every summer the camp hosts one special sleep-away week for kids affected by HIV or AIDS. Each of those years, he would watch campers and their parents have tough conversations in the car before getting dropped off at the camp in Indianapolis.

That's because the camp has always had this rule: Campers need to know why they're here. And once children learned, they needed a stigma-free place to process it.

Some campers here are living with HIV/AIDS themselves. Others have parents living with it, or perhaps family members who have died from the illness and maybe "the rest of the family didn't know that," says Higgins.

Today, the stigma around HIV/AIDS may not be as profound, but it's still there.

Jameson Camp welcomes campers to Tataya Mato week. The week is just for campers affected by HIV/AIDS, meaning either they or a family member has the disease.
/ Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting
Jameson Camp welcomes campers to Tataya Mato week. The week is just for campers affected by HIV/AIDS, meaning either they or a family member has the disease.

So the camp has activities to help kids process their emotions. During arts and crafts, campers glue foam to paper, planning a chapter of their lives.

Chandra, 14, has come to the camp for three summers since her older cousin passed away from the disease. Her foam craft is a peace sign because, as she puts it, "I think everybody should spread peace and love."

Seventy or so campers, ages 7 to 17, come here from across the country to do archery, outdoor adventures in the creek, hide-and-seek, swimming, but it usually all comes back to talking about stigma. "Talking about how we approach people who have a disorder, or a disease, or anything else that's different," says Tim Nowak, Jameson Camp's program director.

"Quietly, for some people, it tears apart a family. Or, it tears apart emotional and mental health for people."

Nowak has worked here for more than a decade. He says since kids want to be at camp, you can tackle heavy topics in a new way.

Like, inside one wooden building where campers design an anti-bullying TV ad. Chase, 10, is one of them.

"People bully people with diseases like down syndrome and HIV, and all that type of stuff, even though they don't know what the meaning is," says Chase, who came to camp from Kentucky.

He adds that people should be given a second chance, even if they're different. His grandma has HIV. And, he says, he first learned that because of this camp. "We have to know to come to this camp because we talk about it."

To Chase, the camp is an opportunity for friends to have something in common and talk about it.

Copyright 2020 IPBS. To see more, visit IPBS.

Corrected: August 9, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story misspelled Tim Nowak's last name as Nowack.