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For a week, there's nothing to hide

Two active, upbeat girls keep quiet about being HIV-positive. But for a time, they can relax.

June 13, 2005|Merrill Balassone | Times Staff Writer

Sitting in the living room of her one-bedroom house crowded with furniture and family pets, Margie is having a talk with her daughters that no mother would ever want to have.

"Do you remember why we don't talk about HIV at school?" she asks gently.

The girls, ages 8 and 7, look down silently, wringing their hands in their laps.

"Because there are still people that don't understand -- they don't know about our virus and they are scared of us," she says.

Margie and two of her three daughters are HIV-positive, and, although the virus cannot be passed through everyday contact, she says she is afraid her children would be tormented if their classmates found out. As a result, the girls can't have friends from school over to play and they are careful to hide the 14 pills they take daily. (Their names were not used in this article to respect their privacy.)

"They don't have a normal life," Margie said. "The ignorance is still out there. I'm willing to talk about it, but I'm not ready for my kids to face it."

Their one week of normalcy comes during the summer when the girls attend a camp run by Camp Laurel at a 90-acre campground in Big Bear with nearly 270 other HIV-positive children. There, they can sit by the campfire, swim, do archery and participate in arts and crafts.

Margie's 7-year-old daughter is the consummate hostess and an aspiring actress, wearing a colorful Hawaiian dress and white lace tights and bursting in periodically to inquire whether anyone would care for pretzels or a Pepsi. Her 8-year-old sister is more subdued and loves to decorate sheets of poetry with her oil pastels. But both girls' eyes bug when their mom brings up memories from the camp.

"Oooh, yeah, the arrows! I want to do the arrows again!"

"Mmmmm, s'mores! I like to burn the marshmallows!"

For Margie, camp is a safe community where her kids can be open about HIV, get hugs from counselors and other kids and don't have to worry about hiding their pills from other children.

"I got so much courage from these kids who can't walk or take care of themselves," Margie said of some of the other campers. "But they're participating in activities and dancing in their wheelchairs. And I have the nerve to complain."

About 12,000 children will go to camp this summer, thanks to $2.1 million raised last year.

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