Jessica Goes to Camp!

January 30, 2017

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This article first appeared in Bloodlines Magazine, Issue 15, and was written by Jessica V.

I am six years old and my family sits me down and read me Arthur Goes to Camp.

After the book is finished, they ask me, “Jessica, would you like to go to camp like Arthur?” Shaking my head, I respond with a firm no. Several weeks later, I am helping to pack my bag and go through my belongings to know what is mine when I’m at camp. We drive to a place I have never been before and sign in. I make a bracelet and a friend, all before we are loaded onto the school buses and whizzed away for a week at Camp Moomba.

I remember this vividly. Why? is was my first memory of Camp Moomba. I went through similar mornings in July on the first day of camp for the next 11 years – until I was 17 years old, my last year of being a camper. The first year, I didn’t get a choice: my foster family made the decision for me. After that first week, I attended because I loved it.

Why would my foster family and social worker highly suggest, and nearly force, a six year old to attend a week–long camp with a group of complete strangers? Well, I guess you could say it started at birth. I was born HIV positive in Vancouver in 1994, just like dozens of children I would meet through Camp Moomba. Camp Moomba was not just another summer camp, not even close. It was where magic happened.

Camp Moomba is a place for kids either living with HIV, or who have a close family member living with this virus. All of us campers have HIV in common, as well as many other experiences. Foster care, food insecurity, bullying at school, colonization and racism are all too common threads among us. While many people might guess that these factors would be a damper on the week, they only made it all the more fabulous. Each year, Camp Moomba gave me – and dozens of other campers – opportunities to try new things: swim in the ocean, kayak, canoe, hike, practice archery and sometimes stay up way too late talking. The goal of camp is for us to just be kids – without the stigma and discrimination that go along with HIV, and any other parts of our lives. That said, it is also a place where – if we want to, when we want to – we are safe to speak openly with our friends about what our year has been like. It is refreshing for campers to meet peers who have stories that mirror our own.

The first summer Camp Moomba program happened in 1998, and has happened every summer since! Some years, the program had more than a hundred campers from all across Canada participate. The last time that happened was 2012, but we are hopeful it will happen again in our future! In 2015, Camp Moomba became a program at YouthCO HIV & Hep C Society. As an organization that has offered peer support and education around HIV and worked to reduce the impact of HIV-related stigmas, it’s a perfect fit. YouthCO ran Camp Moomba in 2016, and was able to integrate its commitment to indigenizing HIV work and peer-led programming into the longstanding Moomba family. Val Nicholson, a Red Road board member, joined the Camp Moomba team as an Elder, offering her perspectives, wisdom and mentorship to campers and staff alike. She also helped us welcome campers, and our visitors during visitor day, and led indigenous programming with each camper group. We look forward to continuing this new tradition into the future!

Some of my fondest memories of camp include seeing new and familiar faces on the first day, when all the buses arrived. The first day of camp is full of giggles, mixed with 365 days’ worth of stories and updates from our lives. We always have a first–night campfire, where the excitement is high regardless of the long travel day, jetlag and pending homesickness. We sing the classic camp songs and get geared up for the week to come. I would wait excitedly to see who was in my cabin and where my other friends would be for the week.

Perhaps surprisingly, one of the best parts of camp is med time. Unlike when we take meds at home, everyone around us knows – to some extent – what HIV is like, either directly or because of a family member living with HIV. Because we can be open about our meds, campers of all ages will stand in line to see the nurses and get meds, and socialize freely! After meals, some campers will race from the dining hall to the nurses to avoid the line-up. Taking meds is normal here, and that is one of the things that makes it amazing.

CAMPFIRE?! WE LOVE CAMPFIRE! On the last night of camp, all the cabin groups come back together for our final campfire. We sing classic camp songs and get all goofy one last time. The counsellors get up and do a goodbye skit, and the tears start flowing. As cabin groups are dismissed one by one, each camper is given a star to make a wish. It is very powerful. As I’m writing this, I am brought to tears by the memories.

Camp Moomba will always have a place in my heart, as will all of the people I have met there. I am still friends with many of the campers I met at Camp Moomba, including the one I mentioned I met on the very first day of camp. Some of our other traditions include an Oreo eating competition. During this activity, you separate the Oreo, lick the icing, and stick it to your forehead, then wiggle it down your face to your mouth. It is a Camp Moomba classic, and hilarious to see! There are other things I have not told you about, like the leadership program, the counsellors, art and music therapy, which are unique to our camp. I know I could keep writing until my laptop battery dies and then some. I know I missed some important stuff, and I hope my friends will forgive me for doing so. I cannot thank Camp Moomba enough for making a huge impact not only on my life, but on hundreds more.

YouthCO is so pleased that camp has become a part of our work with youth living with HIV. In addition to a summer and winter Camp Moomba program, YouthCO also offers online and in-person opportunities for youth living with HIV year round, including through partnership with Oak Tree Clinic.