Dale Dunlop of Reston admits he isn’t a very likely swimming instructor. “I’m not that good of a swimmer,” said Dunlop.
But, in the past two years, Dunlop, 59, has volunteered twice as a counselor at a 10-day camp in South Africa, teaching children who had never been in the water before to learn how to swim.
“By the end of camp, they’re all swimming. It’s amazing,” said Dunlop.
At the first Camp Sizanani, (Zulu for "helping each other"), Dunlop helped about 100 boys, usually preoccupied by finding enough to eat, “just be kids.” The experience was so moving, Dunlop returned a year later to do it again. Both times he brought over hundreds of donated shoes with the help of Reston Runners and the Sport and Health Club in Reston.
THE CAMPS, a product of World Camps, founded by Restonian Phil Lilienthal, first came to South Africa two years ago. The camps take place about six times a year.
Lilienthal, 65, was born into camping. His father owned Camp Winnebago on Maine's Echo Lake, a camp Lilienthal took over and ran for 30 years after his father died in 1974.
Lilienthal first created and ran a camp in Ethiopia.
“The opportunity came up to start a camp in Ethiopia, and I jumped on it,” said Lilienthal, who joined the Peace Corps after law school.
In 1967 and 1968, Lilienthal conducted three camps in Ethiopia focused on alleviating cross-tribe tensions. “We had this wonderful result,” he said, adding that camp grew each time. In 1968, Lilienthal turned over the camp he started to the YMCA, which maintained it until the country became unstable with civil strife.
Always meaning to start up a camp program back in Africa, Lilienthal got sidetracked raising a family in Reston, where he moved in 1967.
“In 2003, I went abroad to take a look [at what might be possible],” said Lilienthal. His first stop was South Africa, where he met representatives from HIV South Africa (HIVSA), an organization that runs a broad range of social-support programs for people living with HIV/AIDS.
“I thought that camps, as a technique and a way of learning, could work in other parts of Africa. If it worked in Ethiopia, I thought it would work anywhere,” said Lilienthal.
At the time, Lilienthal told his prospective partner about the impact that camps could have. “We don’t really need people who are experts in arts and crafts. We need people who are wonderful with kids and can do arts and crafts,” said Lilienthal. “It’s about being there for kids, that’s what would be transformational.” HIVSA liked the idea and joined with World Camps.
FIRST OFFERED TO South African boys 10 to 15 years old, World Camps had its inaugural Camp Sizanani in January 2004 at Magaliesburg, about an hour from Johannesburg. “[The campers] loved it, the whole experiential way of learning,” said Lilienthal of his vision to provide a camp experience for children affected by HIV/AIDS in developing countries. His hope is to give children a fun camp experience and to change prevailing attitudes and behaviors towards AIDS.
“When you’re doing something fun, you’re going to listen to instructors much more, you’re going to retain the information much better,” said Lilienthal. While the camps, which alternate between boys and girls camps, offer swimming, basketball, soccer, arts and crafts and gardening, they also provide a class each day to discuss HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention as well as crucial life skills.
“For them, it’s life and death,” said Lilienthal.
Jenny Abramson of Alexandria, who also volunteered as a counselor at one of the camps for girls, said the camps were “very therapeutic” for the children.
“We talk to [the campers] about HIV education and prevention in an environment that’s safe and nurturing,” said Abramson. “Then they can take what they’ve learned back to their community. So much goes on during those 10 days.”
During one of Dunlop’s sessions, he met a young boy who had a condition that prevented him from raising his arms over his head. Working with the child, Dunlop helped teach him to kick his way across the pool.
“He had tremendous courage,” said Dunlop. “Four months after camp, he died.”
WHILE CALLING the experience “intense,” Abramson hopes to do it again. “You just can’t imagine what the kids go back to. Some are HIV-positive. Some are orphans,” she said. “You just hope you had some positive impact.”
Given time to reflect back, Dunlop is struck at how one person was able to bring the positive experiences of summer camp to Africa.
“Phil’s done tremendous work. My hat’s off to him,” said Dunlop.
Lilienthal, who said he’s done most of his fund raising for World Camp through e-mails to friends, said that foundations are also supporting the camps. About seven groups have given more than $175,000 in support. Lilienthal is currently working to expand the camp to two other locations in South Africa.
“But the goal is to have camps all over Africa,” he said.