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Global Camps Africa brings life skills and AIDS education to local children

Campers take a break to cool off
Campers take a break to cool offGlobal Camps Africa file photo

Ahhh! The joys of summer camp! We can all quickly conjure up visions of swimming, wallets laced in gimp, singing ‘round the campfire. As this summer is in full swing, some of us have recently listened to our own children – with a tale of finding a salamander or retelling ghost stories they heard.

Camp Sizanani is the classic camp experience. Campers arrive by bus, excited for the start of their 10-day adventure. They have heard from older friends about all the fun they will have, and it’s true. There are sessions for arts and crafts, sports and recreation, theater, music, nutrition, life skills, and more.

Wait! Nutrition? … Life Skills?

While this camp is still a getaway from the routine, Camp Sizanani serves a clientele whose routine is unimaginable to most of us. Camp Sizanani is in South Africa, and the campers come from horrendous circumstances. Almost all have been affected by AIDS, having lost one or both parents to the disease, or they are HIV-positive themselves. (One third of today’s 15-year-olds in South Africa will die from AIDS.) They are often victims of sexual or physical abuse. Many are working just to help support the family instead of going to school. Most have little hope for the future, expecting that they will be dead by age 25 or 30.

By interweaving practical information and life skills training with the normal activities of a camp experience, Camp Sizanani has been making inroads in curbing the devastation the youngsters have known, helping them to become responsible for their own lives and to improve their own situation.

The birth of Global Camps Africa

Phil Lilienthal knows camp. A Reston attorney, he spent every summer for thirty years running Camp Winnebago, a boys’ summer camp near Augusta, Maine. He was also an early volunteer in the Peace Corps, serving in Ethiopia in the mid-60’s.

Phil saw an opportunity. He could take his passion for development and his 30 years of camp experience, and use them to establish an intervention for the emerging and most significant threat to children in Africa, HIV-AIDS.

In 2003 he boarded a plane to Kenya and started driving, looking for a location for the camp. Through the auspices of Phil’s organization, Global Camps Africa (GCA), Camp Sizanani (“helping each other” in Zulu) opened in 2004 in South Africa where the need was greatest.

Making a difference with a different approach

As an AIDS intervention, the GCA model is unique. The camp staff is local, camp counselors are from the same neighborhoods as the campers and a great amount of time is dedicated to training the staff. As Lilienthal reports, “Both counselors and campers get much more from camp than they are prepared for. It changes the way a person looks at life.”

Emily Crowder, executive director of Global Camps Africa, says that the goal is to provide an environment where the campers feel safe and where they are valued and respected. They are given a voice and the ability to make good decisions if they follow the training. Camp becomes a transformative event in their lives in so many ways. Upon arrival they are asked what they hope to learn and a typical comment might be “to be able to float on the water.” On departure, they are asked what they learned and a common response sounds like “I learned to do something I never thought possible.” They leave with skills, knowledge, self-confidence and a vision for the future.

Camps are held in September, December and March, coinciding with school breaks. One hundred forty attend each session assisted by 35 counselors. Each child can attend camp one time only.

Youth clubs are held year-round every other Saturday for five hours at five locations around Johannesburg so that campers can continue to receive support long after camp has ended. Counselors encourage children, provide food, medical and emotional support, and much needed fun. However no one is turned away from the youth clubs, so often friends and siblings of campers join in.

Making progress

Although Camp Sizanani has been offering programs for eleven years, it is early to gauge the overall effect of the program. GCA is in the middle of a 5-year longitudinal study to assess outcomes from the camp and the youth clubs. The researchers have developed a pre-camp survey on such topics as AIDS awareness, sexual activity, attitudes, etc. They also conduct post-camp studies at 1 month, 3 months, 6 months and 12 months.

According to Crowder, the non-research evidence shows that interest is spreading throughout the community. School principals have reported that, upon returning to school, campers pay attention in class more and volunteer for community service projects. Other organizations in South Africa and Uganda have reached out for training assistance for similar programs. Crowder points out that GCA is “expanding our reach” and they are helping in “turning off the tap for HIV infection.” In fact there has been a 63% decline in HIV infections from 2009 to 2012. Yet there is so much that still needs to be done.

Looking to the future

Global Camps Africa currently rents the space that is used for every session of the camp. While it has proved adequate, there is a need to expand and to control the property where the camps are held. Lilienthal purchased 186 acres which GCA hopes to convert into the new Camp Sizanani. This will allow additional sessions to be held. Also the property can be used as a training center and offered to other groups as well.

“The momentum is in our favor,” says Emily, confidently. “We are seeing tremendous gains. South Africa is the country that has been hardest hit by the AIDS epidemic. However it is also leading the world in improvements.”

Lilienthal offers his own perspective, “We are completely child-focused and we do whatever needs to be done to help them. The work is endlessly interesting. We’re doing great and you can see it in the kids and counselors who have grown tremendously.”

You can help

It takes about $500 to send one child to camp for ten days including room and board, equipment, supplies, counselors, medical and other staff, plus the year-round Saturday Kids Clubs. Please consider donating the camp cost for one or more children but any amount you can give will be helpful and greatly appreciated.

Checks made out to Global Camps Africa can be sent to Global Camps Africa, 1606 Washington Plaza West, Reston, VA 20190.

Financial support is their most pressing need but there are other ways to help:
- Contribute camping essentials – athletic shoes (adult sizes 3-7), caps with visors, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, shampoo
- Organize fundraising events. See GlobalCampsAfrica.org for ideas
- Send us names and emails of friends you think would like to hear from GCA.
- Search for GCA. Turn your web search into support for GCA by using GoodSearch.com and designating Global Camps Africa as your charity of choice.
- If your employer has a matching gift program, ask for GCA to be added to the list.