Global Camps Africa

By Linda Stalvey

For those of us who experience it, camp is a pivotal life event, providing memories, friendships and skills that last a lifetime--snapshots of time etched into our very beings and unwittingly brought to the surface during backyard campfires, sing-a-longs or random conversations. These camp experiences also provide a foundation of life-skills as valuable as anything that happens in today’s classroom.

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It’s this last trait, using the power of camp to teach important life skills, that Phil Lilienthal, Executive Director of Global Camps Africa (formerly World Camps), has seized upon. Through his organization, Lilienthal is using camp to change the world, for the better, one child at a time.

Doing Something Worthwhile
Lilienthal is no stranger to camping. As a Peace Corps volunteer and staff member, he helped start Ethiopia’s first residential camp program in the 1960s, and then owned and operated Camp Winnebago, a boys camp located in Maine. (Lilienthal’s son, Andy, is the current owner/operator of the camp.)

Despite his successes, Lilienthal realized Africa owned a piece of his heart, and he dreamed of returning to “do something worthwhile.”

That something worthwhile turned out to be Global Camps Africa.

“I love camp as an educational tool,” says Lilienthal. “It is vastly underrated and underused.”

The stated goal of Global Camps Africa, according to its Web site, is to “provide a camp experience for children affected by HIV/AIDS in developing countries and to change prevailing attitudes and behavior towards AIDS.”

To accomplish his mission, Lilienthal partnered with HIV South Africa (HIVSA), “a section 21 non-profit organization established to develop and implement social support programs and strategies for people infected and affected with HIV/AIDS in the Soweto region.”

Each partner brings something to the table. HIVSA provides access to children, their parents, training, counseling and nutritional life-skill segments. In return, Global Camps Africa provides the camp experience.

Staffing Up
Lilienthal knew the key to success for his new venture was in finding properly trained staff. “You can have a brilliant administrator and have 40 deadheads for staff and it will flop. Or, you can have a mediocre director and with a great trainer and great staff you have a successful camp experience.”

Lilienthal turned to renowned international trainer Michael Brandwein to help develop the first group of counselors in expectation of an intense, possibly contentious, training period with personnel unfamiliar with Western ways of working. He was pleasantly surprised with the results.

“They (South Africans) exhibited a warm way of dealing with people that any camp counselor needs,” says Lilienthal.

To further hedge his bet, Lilienthal supplemented his staff with employees from the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia.

Opening Three Locations
Global Camps Africa opened three camp locations in 2004--Camp Sizanani (Zulu for “helping each other”) for boys ages 10 to 15 outside Johannesburg in the Magaliesburg mountains, Camp God’s Golden Acres (Camp GGA) for girls ages 10 to 15 in the province of Kwa Zulu Nata (KZN) and a third site specifically prepared to host orphans from a remote and impoverished village in Limpopo Province--some of the children attending this camp arrived with just the clothes on their backs and spoke a language different from any of the 11 official languages of South Africa.

Campers at all locations played sports, drummed, danced, swam (a new experience for most), sang, created arts and crafts projects, ate three squares a day (a rarity), and participated in a Life Skills class. In other words, they had the typical camp experience and, like always, it was magical.

Most important, all the campers were treated equally, whether they were taking medications for AIDS or not--a radical departure from what they could expect back home--and given a chance to try new activities and gain confidence.

As Lilienthal says, “The city kids from Soweto at Camp Sizanani, the semi-rural youth in KZN at Camp GGA, and the poor orphans from Limpopo, were all having a great time doing trust walks, swimming, playing kickball and soccer among other things. They were all responding to the Life Skills lessons and singing around the campfire.”

Does It Make A Difference?
As all three camps continue to grow, adding sponsors (who work with Global Camps Africa to develop their own programs) and sessions of the original camp, Lilienthal is convinced he is making a difference and doing something worthwhile. Positive comments like the ones he receives from administrators and families at E. W. Hobbs Primary School, which used Camp Sizanani and its staff to provide a quality camp experience for its students, keep him plugging forward. Here’s what they had to say:

From the school administrator, “Camp Sizanani has awoken a new sense of pride, artistic skill, self-awareness and freedom to express themselves in most of the children who went to the camp.”

From the parent of a son, “What have you done with my child? I want my old child back. He asks questions that I do not have answers for. He has become too independent. He left a baby and came back a young adult. I still want to baby him. He now tells me that he can take care of himself. Thank you.”

From the parent of a daughter, “My child has come of age. She used to be an introvert. Now she looks you in the face and discusses issues with me. She is no longer shy and has become very confident.”

From the administrator again, “If we can change a school we can change a community.”

To follow up on these life-changing experiences, Lilienthal and his staff have created Kids Clubs, which meet every two weeks on Saturdays. Past campers are invited to lunch and continuing Life Skills classes. Lilienthal has learned to use these Kids Club sessions as a powerful staffing tool. His staff is constantly evaluating the leadership potential of these former campers with the ultimate goal of bringing them back to camp as counselors.

The Future
After three years, Lilienthal and his staff have a good handle on camp logistics, training procedures and a pipeline of requests from organizations looking to use Camp Sizanani, Camp GGA and the site in the Limpopo Province to educate their children and, hopefully, to help them protect themselves from the epidemic.

The need in South Africa and other African countries is great, so great that Lilienthal knows he needs help. He welcomes inquiries from other organizations interested in using camping as an HIV/AIDS educational tool.

“The issue is global,” says Lilienthal. “The impact is global. For the foreseeable future, we will be in Africa. There is so much to do.”

Linda Stalvey is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Camp Business and Parks & Rec Business magazines. She gave up Washington, D.C., public relations to indulge her passion for parks, the environment and outdoor activities in Medina, Ohio. You can reach her via e-mail at lstalvey@verizon.net.

For more information on Global Camps Africa or to find out how you might help, visit www.globalcamps.org.