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Neil Willenson has wonderful memories of summers spent at camp as a camper and as a counselor. One summer he returned to his hometown and was outraged by a newspaper headline about Nile Wolff, a little boy with AIDS whose mother also had AIDS. "It sounded as if a monster was on the loose," Neil says. "I was heartbroken my well-educated community was treating this boy with such cruelty and with no compassion."
Neil befriended Nile's family and was inspired to create a "safe haven" for Nile and other children affected by HIV/AIDS where they could be liberated from the stigma of the disease. Neil also wanted to make sure the campers' medical needs were met while experiencing all the fun of summer camp.
The Solution — Camp Heartland
Neil established Camp Heartland — 80 gorgeous acres in Willow River, Minnesota. The camp welcomes children year-round who either have HIV/AIDS or who have a loved one who is infected. Camp Heartland is a place of love, acceptance, and openness where children are allowed to talk about the disease. "For the first time in their very young lives, they are with other children and they can say two words, 'me too,'" says Neil. And for the first time they're hugged without someone fearing them. A child will put an arm around another child and is able to say, 'I have AIDS' or 'I have a father with AIDS' or 'I lost my mother to AIDS'... And that is a powerful and emotional experience for them."
"I have no doubt personally that programs like Camp Heartland give children a taste of hope, a taste of freedom, and increased self-confidence help them live longer lives," says Neil."I know in my heart, I know it from seeing children who were once very, very ill, who now have a renewed sense of hope, a renewed sense of purpose, and a renewed health. I believe we are a part of that."