Carol Feder was not surprised to hear about Phil Lilienthal's latest plan, not even a little bit. "You can take the man out of the Peace Corps, but you can't take the Peace Corps out of the man," Feder said.
In the mid-1960s, Lilienthal and his wife, Lynn, were both Peace Corps volunteers in Ethiopia. Now, 36 years later, Lilienthal is going back to Africa.
"It's in his blood," said Feder, of Potomac, Md. "It's his life's passion."
It's not the retired Reston lawyer's only passion, however. For the 36 uninterrupted summers, Lilienthal ran a boy's summer camp, Camp Winnebago, in Kents Hill, Maine. "I was born into camping," he said.
Lilienthal took over Camp Winnebago from his father and this past summer, his oldest son, Andy, officially took over the reins from him. Retired from his law practice and freed from his camping duties, Lilienthal had time to return to a project that he first began exploring nearly four decades ago: establishing children's summer camps in Africa.
While in Ethiopia in 1966, Lilienthal started that country's first ever residential summer camp program. When he returned to the states, Lilienthal promised himself that he would return. "I left there thinking how great it would be when I am older and I can run this again," Lilienthal said.
The time has come. On Thursday, Lilienthal will return to Africa to finalize preparations for his latest African adventure.
For seven years, Feder's two sons, now 21 and 24, spent seven weeks away each summer in the Northern home away from home. "The values that experience taught my boys is immeasurable," Feder said. "I am sure it will translate over to Africa."
His wife couldn't be happier. "It's wonderful," Lynn Lilienthal said. "He's been wanting to do this for a very long time. Finally after working for more than 30 years, he has the time to devote to seeing it through."
BEGINNING THIS WINTER, Lilienthal will open his "post-Winnebago" dream camp come true.
The camp, named Camp Sizanani, is scheduled to open in January about 40 minutes outside of Soweto. The nine-day pilot-project will be in conjunction with an HIV/AIDS clinic near Johannesburg and it will house 100 children, all infected with the AIDS virus. Lilienthal said the AIDS epidemic that is haunting the African continent renewed his urgency to return to Africa. "A camp can give children some fun in their lives," he said. "And it can also give them an awareness of AIDS."
Last year, Lilienthal traveled to South Africa, Botswana and Kenya on a fact-finding and fundraising tour. By the time he returned, he had decided to partner his non-profit organization, WorldCamps, with HIVSA, an HIV/AIDS clinic associated with a Soweto hospital.
Now Lilienthal is putting the finishing touches, including hiring staff and finalizing programming, on a project that will hopefully do everything from boost self-esteem to contribute to nation building in the "increasingly ghetto-ized tribal landscape" of Africa. Lilienthal hopes the camps will help build bridges between African youth who might otherwise never meet, let alone work, play, sleep and eat together. It's appropriate then, that Camp Sizanani means "helping each other" in Zulu, Lilienthal said.
Though Kents Hill, Maine is thousands of miles and a lifetime away from Soweto, South Africa, Lilienthal says that the African camps will be modeled after Camp Winnebago and will have swimming, basketball, soccer, theater arts, crafts and maybe even boating, Lilienthal said.
Feder said Camp Winnebago was actually quite rustic and had no electricity. "So it's not exactly a chi-chi camp," she said. "It was really about the values, the ethics and the friendships. I am sure that will translate because of the leadership that Phil will bring to Africa."
It's all about the children, Lilienthal said. "The most important thing is that these kids will have two weeks of fun," Lilienthal said. "After two weeks, they may start to think they are good as anyone else and they just might believe it.
"AIDS has made it so that families ostracize these kids, they look at it likes it's witchcraft. It's just heartbreaking."