For 14 years, parishioners throughout the Diocese of Southern Virginia have made it possible for adults and children affected and infected by HIV/AIDS to leave their illness for a short period of time and simply have some fun at Camp Wakonda.
Since 1995, Camp Wakonda has operated a free week-long day camp as an outlet for these individuals. Adults spend time learning macramé and other arts and crafts, bowling and being treated to massage therapy and manicures while their children are divided into age-appropriate groups for canoeing, fishing, kickball, softball, and arts and crafts.
“The idea was that we would take the whole family and give them a diversion from the rigors of their everyday living” said Jim Bradberry of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Newport News, Virginia.
Bradberry, a magistrate judge in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, has been involved from the beginning. He said there were years where horses and farm animals where brought to the site for the children and that even the fire department participated by bringing a truck and allowing the children to tour it. He said that the kids “loved it.”
“We’d also try and get them out of the camp for a day, and spend it at a museum or touring a Navy ship,” he explained. “This is done to expose them to other aspects of life and allow them to see possibilities for themselves.”
According to the Rev. Eileen Walsh, rector of St. Christopher Church in Portsmouth, Virginia, the ministry to adults has also been important.
“Again, all of the services have been donated and we just want it to be a time of rejuvenation for them,” she explained.
Walsh, who has been involved for three years now, said that referrals for the camp come from an organization called Access. When Camp Wakonda began, volunteers worked with approximately 60 children per day, which through the years rapidly grew to more than 90 children per day.
Bradberry explained that factors such as lack of long-term planning in 2002, and improvement in health care for those infected led to camp being held for only one day this year. He said they did not want to disappoint the yearly participants and they wanted to assure the diocese that the services provided by the camp were still needed. Sixty-three children and eight adults participated in the one-day program.
“We spent it at Kiptopeke State Park in Cape Charles, Virginia, where they have such a wonderful, safe beach, because many of the kids cannot swim,” he said.
Walsh, who said she has done camp ministry before but not with this population, had an eye-opening experience two years ago when the campers crossed the Chesapeake bridge to go the beach.
“The children were so excited,” she said. “I realized that for most of them although they live in this area which is surrounded by water, they have never left their neighborhoods to see it.”
Bradberry, reflecting on the complete support that the diocese provides for the camp, said it was spearheaded by the late Bishop Frank H. Vest, Jr., eighth bishop of the Diocese of Southern Virginia.
“I remember a number of us called a meeting with him to express an interest in starting this camp, and where we wanted to hold it, and he simply said ‘That’s fine.’ I asked him if he needed to look at a calendar to see if the space was available and Bishop Vest said without hesitation, ‘No, they’ll move.’ That’s the level of support we had and still have,” Bradberry said.
All are fed
The ability to feed everyone has been a priority led by Anne Brockenbrough, a teacher at Blair Middle School in Norfolk, Virginia, who has also been involved with the camp since its inception.
“Everything from the food to all the paper products is donated,” she explained. “We are able to serve a hot breakfast, and lunch, and send everyone home with what we call a “bag dinner,” consisting of a sandwich, drink, and piece of fruit for every day of camp.”
Brockenbrough, a member of Church of the Good Shepherd in Norfolk, said it is incredible how people want to help.
“People from as far as the Western part of the diocese come through every year and nothing donated is wasted. What is not used is given to every family or is donated to the inner city mission,” she explained.
Bradberry added that volunteers drive vans to transport camp participants and that 25 to 30 different churches lend their support to the food program for the camp.
Brockenbrough said that because the families return every year, “It’s been wonderful” watching them “grow and move on.”
“I think we get more out of it then we give,” she said. “They are always so grateful for what you do for them.”
“It’s an absolute joy to go through each year with the knowledge that the people of the diocese are supporting us,” said Bradberry.
-- Daphne Mack is an Episcopal Life Media correspondent and editor of the Global Good website. She is based in New York.