The HIV/AIDS pandemic has created a grim future for most children living in the impoverished sections of Soweto, South Africa. Many of their parents will soon die from the disease, if they haven't already. And many of the children themselves are infected, though they might not know it yet.
Last spring, Reston attorney Phil Lilienthal decided to help these African children, whose lives have been so devastated and whose outlook is so questionable. Lilienthal created the non-profit WorldCamps program, which establishes American-style camps in developing countries, giving the children a fun and educational experience.
The main idea, Lilienthal said, is to get the children away from the harsh realities of their lives for a short while and to teach them life skills for dealing with the difficulties ahead.
"It just gives them a sense of possibility in their lives," Lilienthal said. "It helps them to expand their horizons."
WorldCamps just completed its first camp last month, located outside Johannesburg. Approximately 100 boys, whose ages ranged between 10 and 16, attended Camp Sizanani, which means "helping each other" in Zulu. A second camp for girls will be held next month, also near Johannesburg.
The camps combine traditional summer camp activities, such as arts and crafts, swimming and soccer, with HIV/AIDS education. All of the children who attend the camps are chosen because either they are HIV-positive themselves or someone in their family is infected.
HIV/AIDS has hit South Africa particularly hard, according to the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. In the last 12 years, HIV prevalence among 15- to 49-year-olds rose from 1 percent to about 20 percent.
"When you think of the overall picture, it's horrible," Lilienthal said. "What we're trying to do is stop the flood of statistics and make a difference."
MOST HIV/AIDS PROGRAMS do not work particularly well, Lilienthal said, because the children simply don't trust the people trying to educate them. By teaching the children in a camp setting about HIV/AIDS and other difficult subjects like alcoholism, drugs, the children are more receptive to the message. They are able to relate to their counselors because the counselors are eating with them at the same table and sleeping at the next bunk over.
Other activities, such as wilderness hikes, soccer, musical chairs, creating a quilt together and making dream catchers, help teach the boys more general skills like cooperation and sharing, Lilienthal said.
"It's all about values," he said. "It's about working with each other and learning that other people have strengths where you don't and valuing their input."
Dale Dunlop, a Reston resident who volunteered as a swimming instructor at Camp Sizanani, said the most important thing is for the children to walk away from camp with a happy memory.
"I don't know what's ahead of them, but I know they'll have some tremendous memories from camp," said Dunlop, who the children referred to as "Mkahulu," which means "grandfather" in Zulu.
The campers' favorite activity, both Dunlop and Lilienthal said, was learning to swim in the camp's swimming pool. None of the children had ever been in a pool before, but by the end of the 10 day camp, most of them were swimming.
"These kids, you had to fight to get them out of the pool," said Dunlop, who also volunteers as a tutor at Reston Interfaith's Laurel Learning Center. "I've never seen kids so appreciative of what you were doing for them."
THE IDEA OF HOLDING CAMPS for African children has been brewing in Lilienthal's mind for 37 years, ever since he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia.
The Ethiopian government approached the Peace Corps with a proposal to start an American-style camp for children. Lilienthal leapt at the opportunity because his family owns a summer camp for boys in Maine called Camp Winnebago.
Ever since Lilienthal helped start that first camp for the Peace Corps, he has wanted to get back to Africa to do more. Last year, with the HIV/AIDS crisis, Lilienthal decided to found WorldCamps, which is based out of his Lake Anne Plaza law offices. WorldCamps is run in partnership with HIVSA, a nonprofit associated with the Chris Hani Barawanath hospital in Soweto.
The WorldCamps staff is largely comprised of former Peace Corps volunteers, along with a nurse from California, a Korean-American woman, a former dean of admissions of Sarah Lawrence College and a Wellesley graduate who is volunteering before beginning a Fulbright project.
WorldCamps plans to expand into other African countries over the next several years, Lilienthal said. Next year, a camp is scheduled to open in the rural Limpopo province of South Africa and future camps are being planned for Swaziland, Botswana, Lesotho, and Ethiopia.
NOW THAT THE FIRST camp has been completed, Lilienthal is optimistic corporations and major non-profit organizations will help fund WorldCamps.
Already, the Reston Regional Library and the Lake Anne Used Book Shop have contributed more than 200 books for the campers. Also, Jantzen Swim Wear has contributed swimsuits and the Minnesota Twins have donated water bottles and baseball caps.
Lilienthal is talking with the World Bank about a possible grant and also hopes to secure funding from the Bush Administration's promised $15 billion to fight HIV/AIDS, he said.
If any Reston residents would like to help, WorldCamps needs board games, Lilienthal said. To donate, call WorldCamps at 703-437-0808 or stop by their offices at Lake Anne at 1606 Washington Plaza, Reston, VA 20190.