Camp Pacific Heartland News

By Andrew Bridges
Photos by Katsuya Rainone

The auditorium was silent as the girl stepped to the microphone and introduced herself. "Hi, my name is Stephanie Ray, I am 9 years old, I am HIV-positive and I go to school like a normal kid," she said. Ray, speaking to an assembly of Beverly Hills eighth-graders, is part of a program that brings young speakers affected by HIV or AIDS to schools to address their peers. The Jan. 24 program, "Journey of Hope," was sponsored by Milwaukee-based Camp Heartland, Inc. a group which runs summer camps nationwide for young children affected by HIV and AIDS.

Bert Pearlman, assistant superintendent for instructional services for the BeverIy Hills Unified School District, said the program is part of an AIDS education curriculum that begins in the sixth grade. "While what they heard was nothing new, it was probably the first time it sunk in," he said, referring to the sober silence that met the panel of speakers after their talk. The tour speakers. ranging in age from 9 to 28, spent several hours addressing the nearly 300 eighth-graders from Hawthorne. Beverly Vista and Horace Mann schools.

The three youngest speakers met last September at Camp Pacific Heartland in Malibu, where they joined 57 others for a week-long respite from the virus that affects them either directly or indirectly.

"I have seen a lot of kids die of this disease and I don't want to see any other kids die of this, and I don't want to see any other kids at camp get sick," continued Ray, whose AIDS-infected mother died last year.

Ray was followed by Aaron Avila, aged 9, whose older brother died after contracting the virus which causes AIDS from a blood transfusion. Although not infected himself, the Sherman Oaks resident reminded the group that the virus is often indiscriminate in whom it strikes: "AIDS doesn't care who or what you are."

Avila's message was echoed by Carrie Peters, a HIV positive 28-year-old Missouri resident who worked as a counselor last fall at a Midwestem Camp Heartland. She told the students she contracted the virus while having unprotected sex with her college boyfriend.

"It's not a gay disease, it's not a drug-user disease, it's not a 'them' disease," she warned. "This is a 'we' disease."

Of all the speakers, thc most powerful was Hydia Broadbent, a petite 11-year-oid who was born HlV-positive to an intravenous drug-using mother.

"This year we have more education about AIDS than ever before, but people are still getting infected," said the Las Vegas resident, who now lives with an adoptive family "That's pretty bad."