Toronto
3 min

Kids live the darndest lives

AIDS camp provided a strange utopia

NO PITY. HIV-positive kids are too busy having fun to fret. Credit: Suzy Malik

Hallelujah, I’ve finally been cured of my indifference, redeemed of my apathy. And all it took was a week spent with 52 kiddies, tweens and teens at Camp Oasis – a summer retreat for kids with HIV and AIDS – where my stint as volunteer camp counsellor brought me closer to the disease than anything in my six years of living in Toronto’s gay community ever had.



The disease I’d never seriously thought about leapt from the backburner of my emotional consciousness to the front. Why it took a community hundreds of miles from my own gaybourhood to knock a little sense into my head, I’m only starting to figure out.



First, at Camp Oasis there is no distinction between those who have the disease and those who do not (the ones, for example, who are dealing with a parent who died from AIDS). In fact, the only indication the camp is not your average kiddie retreat is the steady queue of little people awaiting their medication outside the nurse’s cabin – Club Med, as it’s euphemistically identified among campers.



Everywhere on the grounds, they mix without discrimination or segregation. Here, a medication break is a mere pause in a packed itinerary of sailing, swimming and rock-climbing with their pals. George, a 13-year-old boy who wants to be a Ghetto Superstar when he grows up, swallows his protease inhibitors from a Dixie cup with all the attention he’d give a Flintstones vitamin.



Initially, the Club Med cabin was, for me, an imposing, death-knell symbol. It was, I admit, much the same way I used to see the AIDS Committee Of Toronto building at Church and Carlton. I’d walk by it and on some level feel sorry for the ill-fated inside, perhaps even subconsciously denying its very existence as just another office building. But the attitude at Club Med swiftly became my reality check, where my ignorance and misguided sympathies kicked the bucket. How could anyone pity a kid leaving a place called Club Med clutching his post-med snack, a chocolate bar of which most is smeared across his lips, skipping towards the beach to catch up with his friends?



At Camp Oasis, I experience nothing like the time when, during my first gay bar experience in Toronto, a guy leaned over to caution me against a certain tall blond guy playing pool across the room.



“He’s got the bug,” he declared, adding that his intentions were well-meant, since it was his duty to warn people of this blond guy’s potential “victims.”



He waited for me to reply as if he expected me to slap him a high-five in gratitude. Camp Oasis was free from such speculation or hearsay evidence, which can be a staple of conversation around Church St.



The camp even had a CNE-esque carnival, their Pride Day. A popcorn and candy floss machine sat incongruously among the towering pines and maples. On-site fortune tellers were careful to keep the proverbial “life lines” of little palms decidedly upbeat.



It was during this carnival that I noticed how small some of the kids were for their age. Too small. Aasim, 14, is no taller than a six year old. And Ronald, four, has been dwarfed to Muppet-like proportions. Such stunted growth was the second sign that I was among a group whose lives would be cut short, though no one seemed to have time for feeling bad about it.



Of course, even in this utopia, kids will be kids. There’s the usual bickering, arguing and whining about things kids whine about. But it’s part of being a kid. At the campfire, their surface juvenility melts away. This is a family that knows the clock to this 24/7 mutual support is ticking swiftly away.



Many of the kids flew from remote parts of Canada where isolation is the norm. They’ll go back to being the only one at school targeted by hushed whispers, well-meant warnings and relentless shuffling between ostracism and one-on-one hour-long therapy sessions. I don’t want to imagine Ronald, George or Aasim having to overhear one AIDS and buttfuck joke that inevitably comes with playground territory.



The effects of Camp Oasis’ philosophy – to provide a refuge from stigma, judgment and isolation – was really just a baby step toward a grasp of my own prejudice of AIDS, partially ingrained by years of stigma within the gay community itself.



Sure, the support in the gay community towards AIDS has been phenomenal, but there’s no reason there can’t be more Camp Oasis feeling on Church St – from non-activist guys like me.



Trying hard not to pre-mourn the loss of the kids I’d grown so quickly to love, now I too am affected by HIV and AIDS. If you saw the face the kids I met, you’d be, too. If, I mean, you aren’t already.



*AIDS Walk Toronto takes place Sun, Sep 22, beginning and ending at Nathan Phillips Square (Queen and Bay streets). You can sign up or pledge at www.aidswalktoronto.com or by calling (416) 340-9255.