Photo by Steve Chavarria
Three things terrify me as a black man from a small city in Florida now living in Los Angeles—police officers, hills, and mudslides. The four-mile drive up the mountain frightened Maria and me in the backseat, even more than being stopped by the armed guard at the lower camp. Had a mudslide happened, it might have been my last year riding up the narrow road to the hilltop. Higher up, two lanes merged into one, preventing our driver from seeing what could be flying around the corner.
I shut my eyes, listening for the familiar clinking sound. Hearing the security gate slide open, my whole body sank into the seat. Maria traced her fingers from her forehead to her chest, then to each shoulder, and smiled, flexing her eyebrows. As we parked, Camp Hollywood Heart came into view, nestled among the Malibu hills: it was well worth the heart-stopping ride to arrive at the tranquility of this campground. Every year it plays host to transitional-aged youth impacted by HIV/AIDS.
After teaching at the camp for three years,knowing what to say has not become easier, but knowing what to provide has.
I unfolded the paper in my hand and glanced over highlighted notes for my creative writing workshop. Spontaneous speaking is not a natural gift that I possess. When I prepare to teach a class, I write out a full speech and practice in the bathroom mirror. One of my fears is standing in front of a group of students and not being able to communicate my thoughts.
After teaching at the camp for three years, knowing what to say has not become easier, but knowing what to provide has—such as more writing prompts that force the students to incorporate imagery, breath, and sound into their work. Teaching at the camp was a career milestone—it was my first writing instructor position, which led to additional writing and non-writing jobs, and even the publication of my first book.
Driving up the mountain, I thought about what the camp had given me. Then, as I watched two campers hurdle over luggage to embrace, I wondered what it had given the campers. The first person I asked was Maggie Blake. Blake served as the volunteer coordinator two years ago before being promoted to camp director.
“It’s home for some of the campers,” Blake said. “It is a feeling of safety. But at the same time, it’s the ability to take risks and challenge them creatively. Or even something as simple as challenge them to try to go to the beach or go to the farmers market and try a kumquat for the first time—these small things that they don’t face in their regular lives.”
In 1995, MTV executive David Gale founded a one-week camp for youth living with HIV and AIDS. His goal was to help them build resilience and character in the hope of strengthening their academic success and life satisfaction. He teamed up with One Heartland, a Minnesota-based organization that hosts year-round activities for youth facing serious health challenges, intolerance, or social isolation. This partnership breathed life into the lungs of young people who were often made invisible. Camp Hollywood Heart gave them the freedom to be who they were without fear.
In 1995, MTV executive David Gale foundeda one-week camp for youth living with HIV and AIDS.
In the same year that Gale founded the camp, hundreds of silent deaths gutted American cities. The New York Times reported that AIDS had become the leading cause of death among Americans ages twenty-five to forty-four. One death shocked the world: Eazy-E of the hip-hop group N.W.A. died of AIDS on March 26, 1995, at the age of thirty. I was bundled up in blankets lying on my grandmother’s couch watching MTV that day. Every news program reported on his death. A month before, Olympic diver Greg Louganis disclosed his status to the world.
In spite of this, AIDS was still considered unmentionable where I lived. No one in school discussed it. Neither did members of my family, even though a relative tested positive. When he died, his name was ripped from our tongues at family gatherings.
By the end of the year, 319,849 deaths had occurred. The diagnosis was like a death sentence. Life expectancy was a few years or months. Stigma isolated people who were HIV-positive from loved ones who feared contagion. Hundreds of writers whose work I admire were snatched away, like Joseph Beam (1988), Melvin Dixon (1992), Marlon Riggs (1994), Assotto Saint (1994), and Essex Hemphill (1995). I still feel a profound loss knowing I will never hear the sounds of their voices.
His goal was to help them build resilienceand character in the hope of strengthening their academic success and life satisfaction.
This summer session started like all others. The campers trickled up the mountain, and I tried to learn all their names. Luckily, one of the camp traditions is to bedazzle circular wooden medallions with our names on the first night. I found myself sucked into an arts-and-crafts whirlwind, churning out several signs and posters for my classroom walls after finishing my name tag.
By the time the paint dried on the medallions, campers were placed in one of seven workshops—creative writing, music, visual arts, fashion, acting, documentary film, and culinary—that were intensive, educational, and inspirational. They then met twice a day with their respective instructors. One Heartland assigns one to two counselors to each workshop. Trained counselors are also available to offer psychological and emotional support to help campers treat their mental scars. I spoke with the director of One Heartland, Jill Rudolph, to learn more about the collaboration between the camps.
“I first heard of One Heartland when I was in college in the late ’90s,” Rudolph said. “At that time, One Heartland had a public speaking tour called Journey of Hope. I attended their presentation and was moved by real-life stories of what it meant to live with HIV. I can still remember some of the stories from that day.”
“These two organizations both have the same hope to serve young people who need more resources to succeed in life. This partnership allows One Heartland to bring the experience of creating a safe camp environment and intertwine with Hollywood Heart’s art skills resources, while both focus on youth development.”
This year’s campers, versus the campers who first journeyed up the mountain, not only come from different generations, but also have advanced medical treatments. Typical HIV cocktail therapy combines antiretroviral medications (upwards of twenty) to inhibit the replication of the virus. Research studies have proven HIV drug cocktails are effective in reducing the viral load in the body to undetectable levels.
One newcomer confided in his cabinmatesand me that the act of seeing the other campers taking medication was normalizing and powerful.
As with most drugs, they can cause unpleasant side effects such as depression, weight loss, a skin rash, fat redistribution, fever, insomnia, weakness, anemia, vomiting, diarrhea, and a decrease in bone density. For some of the campers, these are their daily battles. Many of them have been coming to camp since they were thirteen and are now in their twenties. For about thirty of the campers, it was their first time.
One newcomer confided in his cabinmates and me that the act of seeing the other campers taking medication was normalizing and powerful. A large number of them were not out in their communities. Societal stigma often forces HIV-positive people to not disclose their status to school friends, potential suitors, and employers. Being positive can be like hiding in the closet for heterosexual campers and a second closet for LGBT campers who are not out in terms of their sexual orientation or identity.
“Magical” best sums up Camp Hollywood Heart. In the morning, deer rushed through the grounds searching for wild berries and nuts. While I prepared for class in the early hours, some campers would wake to watch the sun peek over the mountains at the chapel.
The outdoor chapel was the highest point in the camp and the farthest away from the cabins. Campers climbed about forty-five steps to reach it. The change that came over people was immediate. “Spiritually cleansing,” “peaceful,” and “meditative” were often used to describe the atmosphere. Four rows of pews, the menorah, a cast-iron wood-burning stove, sand, and hundreds of prayers shaped the chapel. After leaving the chapel, everyone felt connected to something greater, and the world smelled different, as if it had rained.
As transformative as the experienceis for campers, it is equally transformative for the staff, including the camp director.
The camp buzzed with energy during the day. Every aspect of camp—the art choices (such as “How to Draw SpongeBob,” led by the creator), breathing in the cleaner air, the majestic views of Malibu, the positivity, and the food (like the rosemary buttermilk Belgian waffles with honey and orange butter)—facilitated in the change.
On the third day, I invited a friend of mine, Christopher Rivas, to lead a mini writing workshop at the chapel. We journaled about what our perfect day would look like and wrote letters to our younger selves. Loss, love, the awkwardness of teenagedom, and girlhood were common themes. The goal was to introduce campers to a variety of voices, writing styles, and exercises to expand their growth as writers. At the end of the week, the campers showcased what they learned in their classes at the amphitheater, in front of about three hundred people. The performance transformed the campers into artists.
Watching campers push themselves year after year is cathartic. One of my creative writing students completed a first draft of dramatic monologues, which he wants Samuel French to publish. Another student started college and writes spoken word, poetry, and essays every day. He and the dramatist are cowriting an article about the subtlety of white privilege and brown angst in animated movies. One student, who has been in acting and documentary film classes since he was a preteen, is on the path to success. “He is applying to UCLA’s film school and is currently a senior in high school,” Blake said. “This summer, we could not pull him away from editing his film project.”
Camp Hollywood Heart changed my life.
As transformative as the experience is for campers, it is equally transformative for the staff, including the camp director. I sat down with Blake in downtown Los Angeles to also learn how the organization has impacted her life.
“I came to Los Angeles to be an actress but wasn’t satisfied emotionally,” Blake said. “So camp has been a way to be involved in the arts in a meaningful way.”
Blake studied acting at the University of Iowa and since her move has performed in several plays, including Othello and Measure for Measure. She sits on the board of directors for Theatre of NOTE, a black-box theater in Hollywood.
“Before, I worked on the coordination and policies and the paperwork, but when you take on the director role, you realize it’s a lot more of the programming and looking at those relationships between staff and volunteers and how you can partner with them to put together the best program that is possible.”
Blake continued, “Many of our teachers are not just qualified, but they are teaching artists themselves. What they bring to the table is incredible. Cintia, our visual arts leader, had this photo exhibition that was about her cultural heritage of being Mexican and what it means to be Mexican and look white and what that means. That is important. She is creating work that is culturally relevant to share with the campers. You published a book before coming to camp. Joe Russell’s movie premieres on Netflix tonight. It helps our campers to see the potential, too.”
Their words elucidated their stories andthe stories of their friends and the stories of the first group of campers who rode up the mountain and the stories of those who will never make it back up again.
Camp Hollywood Heart changed my life. I learned about the camp two years ago at a workshop hosted by the LA County Arts Commission, where I met the camp director and educational program director at the time. I applied for the position of creative writing workshop leader. Teaching created new opportunities to help pay for school, rent, and, later, student loan debt. I could barely afford to eat an entrée at a medium-priced restaurant before teaching at camp. Now I can add in a drink.
The first two years I taught at the summer camp, I used it as a writing retreat. I wrote during my off time and worked on my first book. In December 2015, three months after camp, I published that book. This summer, I taught my class how they could self-publish and challenged them to publish books by the next time camp came into session.
As I rode down the mountain on the last day, filled with pride but also anxiety, I read through the creative writing chapbook. Each student contributed either spoken word or poetry. A local printing shop bound their words. Students left with a copy to show off to their family away from camp. Their words elucidated their stories and the stories of their friends and the stories of the first group of campers who rode up the mountain and the stories of those who will never make it back up again.