Summer camp helps teenagers with HIV

A summer camp for teenagers living with HIV has been making an encouraging impact in the heart of the Derbyshire countryside

The camp offers a safe environment in which teenagers aged 13 to 17 can share their experiences and openly discuss what it is like to grow up with the condition.

Organised by The Children’s HIV Association (CHIVA), the 2011 programme took place in the Peak District and sought to include young people living in isolated areas, who do not have access to support groups found in cities. CHIVA provides health care and emotional support for children living with HIV and first launched in 2002, achieving charity status three years later.

“Although there have been summer camps for young people living with HIV for many years now, this is the largest one in the UK,” explains Bakita Kasada, one of 30 volunteers at the 2011 camp. “We had 102 participants this year, compared to 79 when the project was launched in 2010.”

She adds: “The great difference between this and last year’s camp is that the conversations were not confided to the workshops, which meant a difficult subject could be openly discussed among the very supportive youth hostel staff. They also helped organise extra activities, such as climbing, caving and abseiling.”

In the UK, many young people born with HIV live in silence, in fear of the social stigma attached to the disease. The taboo placed on the subject means that children are unlikely to disclose their condition to the outside world, or have access to peer support. CHIVA founded the summer camp in order to finally break the silence and bring together HIV-positive teenagers from around the country.

“It was a fantastic experience to be involved in this project as a volunteer, and to see friendships form that will probably last forever,” says Bakita. “Many of these young people had so much enthusiasm, and the experience has made them mature beyond their years. The bonds that they made in those five days were extraordinary.”

Another volunteer adds: “These circumstances have created positive mature young people. Many adults do not have the sense of direction and the ‘go-getter attitude’ that they have. Their positivity is truly inspirational.”

CHIVA believes that the camp is an important step towards raising awareness of HIV, with 6,136 new cases diagnosed in the UK last year. Above all, Bakita insists that it is the psychological aspect of the illness that goes under-discussed and she spends a lot of her time making sure the emotional needs of those living with the virus are addressed. “Working with CHIVA, I often have to talk directly with MPs to ensure that emotional, as well as medical requirements are being met. In the Western world particularly, the discrimination towards the illness means that HIV is a mental burden.”

The summer camps run by CHIVA are easing this burden by providing a supportive environment for HIV-positive teenagers to connect with each other. One attendee at this year’s camp said: “’Until now, I’ve only talked about my status to nurses, now I’ve been surrounded by people who are just like me. I felt safe there and I know that some of those people will be friends for life. We share something.”