A Brief Oasis Families touched by AIDS find respite at camp

September 03, 1993|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Staff Writer

A blue bus carrying an enormous cargo of anxieties and secrets comes to a stop in the serene, green woods of Monmouth County, N.J. When its door swings open, adults and children clamber out, bearing baseball caps, mosquito repellent and swim suits -- and the invisible burdens.

In shorts and T-shirts, the bus passengers look like other vacationers, heading to the outdoors for some summer fun. But they are arriving at St. Clare's Summer Camp in the country for three brief days of peace in the midst of lives turned upside down by AIDS.

They already have seen a family member waste away, or they are themselves infected with the human immunodeficiency virus. they have an infected child, an infected spouse, sometimes both. They are worrying that they will be left alone by the deaths of others, or that their own deaths will leave no one to care for a child.

There were 10 such adults and 16 children from the Newark area last month who stepped from the bus toward the welcoming arms of Terrence and Faye Zealand, directors of this free summer camp for families with AIDS.

For three days, there is to be swimming, nature hikes, magic shows and a trip to the Jersey Shore. Within the first hour, however, a counselor whisks the children away to a nearby playground because, particularly for the parents, this is to be a three-day attempt to live worry-free.

"Some of the parents are very needy themselves. They don't know how to parent, let alone how to deal with the HIV part," says Mr. Zealand, a former Franciscan seminarian who has degrees in rehabilitation therapy and education. "They are the ones who really need this camp because they just wear out."

For the children, he says, "this is a chance to collect good memories."

The camp is supported by a $10,000 grant from the New Jersey AIDS Partnership, a group of corporations from across the state, as well as an additional $5,000 in private contributions.

Many of the families attending are referred through three transitional homes for children who have been hospitalized with AIDS and through an outreach program, the AIDS Resource Foundation for Children. All are run by Mr. Zealand.

A helpful break

A realist, Mr. Zealand knows that his 4-year-old camp, one of a handful throughout the country operated specifically for families with AIDS, is not a cure or even a permanent bandage for lives torn apart by the disease. "If a family is beginning to lose control, to give up, maybe this is the break that will help," he says.

With the children at the playground, the adults, two men and eight women, are encouraged to find their rooms -- one for each family -- on the second floor of the huge, renovated stables on the grounds of the Collier School for emotionally disturbed adolescents. The grown-ups have a chance now to play games, or just sit.

"I'm so used to having my kids all over me I don't know what to do," sighs one woman.

There is no alcohol here. There are no drugs. Everyone is expected to pitch in at least a little. The food is prepared by volunteers, some of whom return year after year. Parents and children get physicals before being accepted as campers, says Mr. Zealand. Once here, precautions are taken -- things such as dishes and children's toys are washed in a bleach-and-water solution, for example. And in case of emergencies, the local hospital is alerted as to when camp will begin.

Before each of the four summer sessions, case manager Carol Hill gives volunteers instructions: "We'd like to have you people playing with the kids, watching out for them," she says. "The idea is to give the parents a second alone, let them rest."

As for the children, they sing songs, hike and swim, says counselor Charles Clemons, a University of Delaware graduate student. "And then we will act completely silly."

A niche for everyone

The dual philosophy seems to work. The children's laughter gets louder and more frequent. Exhausted or bereaved parents begin DTC to smile. Inhibitions melt like marshmallows over a campfire, as each person finds a niche.

Kathy Remillard, infected with HIV by her husband who died of AIDS in June, emerges as the resident artist. The 25-year-old decorates T-shirts with painted puppies and mice on demand. Her oldest daughter's T-shirt, however, read: "Maelee loves Daddy. '93." The youngest of her three children is HIV-positive, too.

John Barreto, a former truck driver who has AIDS, causes a minor uproar by appearing at breakfast in swimming fins. And Robert Arbuckle, an unemployed prison counselor whose wife recently died of AIDS, turns into a rummy-playing card shark.

Four women, led by a "preacher" named Gladys (who asked that her last name not be published) staged a coup in the kitchen after volunteers produced a spaghetti and salad dinner -- which, the women proclaimed, didn't "stick to their ribs."

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