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Camp Fund

Camp Is a Lifesaver for Tammy, 15, Born With HIV

June 12, 2002|KWALA MANDEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fifteen-year-old Tammy left a short but telling message in an Internet chat room: "If it wasn't for camp, I would have committed suicide."

Tammy, who did not want her last name used, was born with the virus that causes AIDS, a disease which she can only discuss with a few close friends at the school she attends in Paramount. For the last seven summers, Camp Laurel, for children diagnosed with AIDS or HIV, has given Tammy a place to leave the secrecy behind. In a youthful and clearly chipper voice, Tammy explains why she left that message.

"If I had never gone to camp, I wouldn't be so positive," she says. "My mom telling me things will be OK is not the same as hearing it from someone who's been through the same thing."

Although her 33-year-old mother has AIDS, Tammy says that because she is older, she doesn't always know what the experience is like from a teenager's perspective. Her mother, who works for an AIDS foundation, contracted the virus through a blood transfusion she received when she was pregnant with Tammy in Mexico. She learned she was HIV-positive five years later when her husband became ill. The doctors didn't know what was wrong. "AIDS was the last thing that occurred to them. They finally tested him and he had it," says Tammy. Her father's diagnosis was followed by her mother's. When Tammy was 5, her father died and she and her mother moved to California. "Then I found out I had it," she says.

"My mom explained it like a storybook. She said there was a worm living inside us--that was like the virus," says Tammy. "She said it didn't harm us, but it was still there."

Like her mother, the HIV virus has developed into AIDS in Tammy. Margot Andrew, executive director of the Camp Laurel Foundation, says, "She does take medication all the time, and typically with kids, you can't really tell they are sick."

Now Tammy helps others understand AIDS, both at camp and by speaking at conferences with her mother. Andrew calls her a role model at the Big Bear camp. "She's the one looking around the campfire who will notice if a camper is cold and offer her a coat. She'll notice before a counselor."

This year, Tammy will be one of 16 children enjoying camp thanks to donations to the Los Angeles Times summer camp campaign. She will participate in the Teen Adventure program for 13- to 16-year-olds. It includes a segment called "Chill Chat Groups," which deals with issues of dating. Andrew says the campers learn how to tell a boyfriend or girlfriend about their condition, and other frustrations they may face as a teen with AIDS or HIV.

"We talk about how it is living with AIDS, and how kids at school talk about it and joke, but we feel bad," says Tammy. "They shouldn't be saying those things, but we can't say anything."

For some of the new campers, there is a brief, awkward transition when they arrive because they tend to have two lives, according to Andrew. "One is school life, where they have to pretend, and the other is home life, where they are sick and taking their medications." At camp, they don't immediately know which persona to adopt. The camp counters this through an environment where issues are openly discussed, and medications openly taken.

"Many are taking 20 pills, three times a day. Some might be on IVs or in wheelchairs, but it's not a big deal," says Andrew. "At meals, the medical staff comes out and the kids are cracking jokes at the table. They take their medication, and go back to cracking jokes."

The camp tries to give the children the opportunity to test their own boundaries. Andrew recalls a child who was in a wheelchair and paralyzed from the waist down. The child said he wanted to try an exercise that required climbing up a pole to reach a platform and then grabbing onto a trapeze. He used only his arms to climb up and successfully push off to grab the trapeze.

"We teach self-esteem and encourage them to try activities they didn't think they could do," says Andrew. "It is about self-worth and trust. We show them fun, that life can be great."

Every year since 1954, readers and employees of The Times have sent thousands of needy children to summer camp. This year more than 11,000 children will experience a special summer thanks to the $1.6 million raised last year.

The average cost of sending a child to camp for a week is $150. This year, the McCormick Tribune Foundation will match the first $1.2 million in contributions at 50 cents on the dollar.

Checks should be sent to: L.A. Times Summer Camp Campaign, File No. 56984, Los Angeles, CA 90074-6984.

For more information, call (213) 237-5771. To make credit card donations, visit www.la times.com/summercamp. Do not send cash.

All donations are tax-deductible. Unless donors request otherwise, gifts of $25 or more are acknowledged in The Times. The camp campaign is part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund, a fund of the McCormick Tribune Foundation.

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