Camp Hope 2009: A Counselor’s Perspective

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The following post is courtesy of Caitlin McSweeney, an Adult Counselor at Camp Hope 2009:

A camper from the green group at Camp Hope 2009.  Photo courtesy of Kim Mehta.
A camper from the green group at Camp Hope 2009. Photo courtesy of Kim Mehta.

 Camp Hope 2009: A Counselor’s Perspective

Camp Hope Ya Chesa! (Campe Hope Rocks!) Hello to all! I have just returned from an amazing week at Camp Hope! A 5-day camp for children aged 10-12 who are HIV-positive, Camp Hope is designed to provide a week of fun for kids who could use a little more support in their lives. It was an awesome week full of activities, food, friendship and so much more.

I felt really lucky when I was told that I had been chosen to be a camp counselor for Camp Hope! I knew I was in for a great experience. I was also fortunate to go along with 2 great friends from the area, Jonathan (a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer) and Tony (a nurse from Mahalapye District Hospital). Both of these guys are people I work with closely for Mahalapye Teen Club.

On Saturday, August 8th we headed down to Baylor Clinic in Gaborone for lunch and an orientation session. We were briefed on what we would be doing at the camp, issues we might face, etc. Children at the camp were going to vary from being fully disclosed (knowing that they are HIV-positive) to being partially disclosed (knowing that they are sick, that they take medication, but not necessarily knowing they have HIV) and as a result the focus of the camp was not about HIV, but rather on psychosocial support and having fun. We then headed over to the school where we would be having the camp and set up a little bit. We all knew these would be our last calm and quiet moments until camp was over on Thursday.

Sunday morning we woke up, showered and prepared for the campers to arrive. We set up stations for the campers to check-in at. They had to drop off their medications with the doctors, have parents/guardians sign some forms, and then get their name tags and bandannas. All the kids were divided into color groups. My color group was green: 7 girls ranging from 11-12. Whew!

After they checked in, the kids all got settled into their rooms and then it was time for energizers and icebreaker games. Then it was time for lunch! After lunch we went to our first session – Character Development. It was a session that talked about characteristics that build character: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, friendship, caring, and citizenship. I think the girls were looking for something a little more exciting – but it was a good lesson that sent out some important messages. Sunday was also when we had to come up with our team cheer. Ha! It was fun watching the girls try to come up with something. Sunday night was the bonfire! We made s’mores for the kids and the kids performed their team cheers and told jokes and stories. Finally the day was over and we all headed back to the dorms for much needed rest!

Monday started bright and early as the campers were eager to go to breakfast and have their first full day of camp! It also started with trying to coordinate 30 girl campers to get showered and dressed! Oh my goodness what a process!!! 30 girls running around in towels and underwear – soap, toothbrushes and various other body care products tightly held in hand and plastic bags or shower caps around the heads of girls with more elaborate hairstyles that shouldn’t get wet. HILARIOUS! Begging the girls not to run, to not blast water all over the showerroom… I’m sure you can imagine the chaos that ensued.

After breakfast we headed to our first session of the day – Feelings and Emotions. Many times in Botswana children’s emotions and feelings are not necessarily accounted for and kids many times aren’t encouraged to express how they are feeling. Additionally, many of the kids attending Camp Hope have gone through some really tough situations (aside from being HIV-positive). Many girls in my groups expressed sadness over unhappy home situations. I know from talking to other counselors that similar things came out within their groups. The session was led by Baylor’s social worker, Bakani Johnson, who was fabulous and really supportive of the kids and the things they expressed. After Feelings and Emotions everyone loaded into a bus to head to Mokolodi Game Reserve for a game drive! The kids were really excited about the prospect of seeing the animals. Once we got to the game park we loaded into safari trucks and headed off for a long game drive. We saw a ton of animals –elephants, wildebeests, impala, a cheetah, an ostrich, warthogs, and more! It was a lot of fun! We then headed back to the school for lunch! After lunch our group played board games and then mingled with the other girl groups. Monday night was movie night! The school had a really nice AV Centre and the kids LOVED being able to watch a movie on a big screen. Then, THANKFULLY, it was time for bed again!

Tuesday morning greeted me way too early with the sounds of the girls slamming the doors and getting ready to bathe. The crazy bath process was repeated all over again and then we headed to breakfast. Tuesday was the green group’s active day. We began with dance which was led by an awesome guy who taught the girls hip-hop and break-dancing moves! I even managed a few moves…including the “freeze” which included me having my entire body balanced on my arms. Needless to say that didn’t last for long. Then it was time to practice for the talent show. At first the group was going to do a “drama” but it was quickly (and thankfully) changed to a group dance. Then it was time for lunch. After lunch we moved to Cooking & Nutrition – the girls were taught how to make and decorate cupcakes and were then also given a session on eating healthy and having a balanced diet. I don’t think it changed too many of my girls minds… most still hated vegetables. As if we hadn’t done enough after cooking & nutrition it was then time for sports! We headed out to the netball court and played a game of netball (much like basketball). It was a lot of fun because a lot of the adult men from Baylor came to play with them along with 2 Zebras (the national football team) players! The guys were great sports and really encouraged all the girls to play! Then off to the showers and dinner! After dinner it was time for the Talent Show. It was really cute to see the kids singing and dancing. It was also funny because 5 different groups all chose the same song to dance to – a South African house song… we were all humming it as we left!

Wednesday morning was the last full day of camp…but it didn’t mean we slowed down at all. After showering and breakfast it was time for the green group to go to Arts & Crafts. In Arts & Crafts we made Hope Dolls… the girls had a lot of fun making them. After they finished those they moved on to friendship bracelets which were also a hit! They then joined all the campers to write thank-you notes to the sponsors of the camp and to put their handprints on the Camp Hope poster. After lunch the kids all gathered on the rugby pitch for the Camp Hope Olympics! Complete with face painting, a sack race, egg race and other fun games the kids seemed to have a lot of fun being outside. Then it was time for showering and dinner. After dinner it was time for the graduation ceremony for those who would be 13 before the next Camp Hope. Those who turn 13 are now eligible for Teen Club – the monthly support group for those aged 13-19. When bedtime rolled around you could tell that the kids were a little sad that next day would be the last day of camp.

Thursday morning rolled around and while I was sad that camp was ending – I was really glad that the next time I woke up would be in my own bed. We all ate breakfast and then headed back to the dorms to pack up and clean. Then we headed back to the AV centre for the closing ceremony and slideshow. Baylor had put together a long slideshow of photos from the week which the kids and parents/guardians really enjoyed. Then it was time to go home!

Throughout the morning there were quite a few kids who were upset about camp being over… and it was hard because you knew a lot them had been able to escape for a bit and now had to go back to reality… but overall the kids left having had a really great time!

As for me, I left Camp Hope having had a great adventure. While many of the moments were trying – they were simultaneously hilarious and fun. I left exhausted but glowing. It’s an adventure I would undertake again in a heartbeat. I not only got to meet great campers but great counselors, great Teen Leaders and other great people who all gave to the camp. Camp Hope Ya Chesa!