Ten-year-old Matthew O’Neil was born HIV-positive, but his illness was a taboo subject for him until he began participating in the Camp Heartland program.
There, he could speak about AIDS without being judged and feared.
“I could not talk about (AIDS) with my friends at school,” O’Neil said. “They tell their parents and then they can’t be my friend.
“It wasn’t ’till I went to Camp Heartland that I felt I had a future,” he said.
Camp Heartland, founded by Neil Willenson in 1993, is a camping and outreach program for children and teenagers who have been infected with AIDS and HIV or who have been otherwise impacted by the disease.
Willenson brought four kids involved with the camp to the University yesterday for a presentation titled “Journey of Hope” in coordination with Greek Week 2002. Greek Week, which began Saturday and concludes April 3, donates most of its proceeds to Camp Heartland. Last year’s contribution of $36,000 was one of the largest received by the camp.
Willenson founded Camp Heartland after witnessing bigotry and fear against a mother and child with AIDS in his hometown of Mequon, Wis.
He said he wanted to give children a place where they could be themselves.
“They come, sometimes, to share their secret for the first time in their young lives,” he said. “They know it’s a safe place to share their secret and that is very, very powerful.”
The campers came to the University with a message of education and prevention.
They tried to dispel myths about the contraction of AIDS, explaining that it is generally contracted only by unprotected sex and use of contaminated needles and not by casual contact.
The kids also urged the audience to lead safe lifestyles so their own experiences would not be repeated.
Fraternity and sorority members made up most of the audience and received points for their Greek Week teams by attending.
LSA senior Katie Clark, a Greek Week organizer, said the presentation helped Greeks realize that there is more to the week’s events than games.
“There’s a big percentage of us who aren’t directly affected by HIV and AIDS, and by bringing it to the forefront of the student population makes it more real for those of us who haven’t had direct experiences,” she said.
The kids used humor in their presentation, including several skits and a dance set to Britney Spears music, which LSA senior and organizer Cara Kunkel said helped to make the audience more receptive.
“They’re talking about something so touching, so dramatic … yet they get it across in a humorous way so everyone can relate,” she said.