Lessons From CampPhilip Lilienthal ’65 and Global Camps Africa
by Rebecca Barns
For many of us, camp was where we first heard stories around a bonfire, learned to paddle a canoe, and got our first taste of independence. When avid camp enthusiast Philip Lilienthal ’65 founded Global Camps Africa in 2003, he took all of the best things about the camp experience and put them to work helping children in South Africa get a second chance in life.
Following his graduation from the Law School, Lilienthal served two years with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia as an attorney and helped establish the country’s first residential summer camps. He later worked in private practice, served as an attorney in Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., and as staff in the Philippines and Thailand. When he returned to the U.S. he opened a law practice in Reston, Va. For 30 years he was also the owner and director of Camp Winnebago in Maine, a boys camp established in 1919 and now owned by his son, Andy.
In 2003 Lilienthal travelled to South Africa, where the world’s highest number of people living with HIV/AIDS leaves thousands of children orphaned, infected, and with parents dying of it. He wanted to find out whether these kids had any opportunities to go to camp, and discovered there were none. So he founded Global Camps Africa, Inc. to see if camp would be an effective intervention. He set up headquarters in Reston.
In 2004 the first overnight camp, about an hour’s drive from Johannesburg, opened for business. Camp Sizanani (Sizanani means “to help each other” in Zulu) has six ten-day sessions each year for about 130 boys and girls aged 10-16. Most of the children come from the Soweto area. Since Sizanani opened in 2004, more than 3,700 children have attended.
Kids play sports, dance, sing, write about their lives, and create art at the camp. Boys and girls learn respect for one another and speak openly about sexual issues — a novel experience for most — and begin to break gender stereotypes. Lessons in proper hygiene, HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness, healthy sexuality, and nutrition are incorporated into daily activities in creative ways. Lilienthal and his colleagues call it “serious fun.”
When camp first started, no one knew how South African families would respond. “We thought we would hit the wall at least twice,” says Lilienthal. “At the beginning, when they found out we were talking to their children about sexuality and HIV/AIDS, and more recently, when we promoted HIV testing and then actually did the voluntary counseling and testing at camp.” The community, as it turns out, is very supportive.
Back in Soweto, Global Camps Africa extends its reach to graduates through bi-weekly Kids Club meetings. The sessions provide continuing support and reinforce the life skills learned in camp.
Lilienthal travels to camps throughout the United States to spread the word about Global Camps Africa. He’s often asked about the wherewithal it takes to tackle what seems, at time, an insurmountable crisis. “The key to me in facing the HIV/AIDS issue,” he says, “is never to look at what is left unsolved, but to concentrate on how many children might benefit from what we were doing. There is also the constant thought that, by other groups copying what we are doing, we are helping more children than we are directly impacting.”
Lilienthal sees Camp Sizanani as a beginning, a model for other, much-needed camps throughout South Africa. Three new camps are in the planning stages, along with plans for a camp in Uganda. In the meantime, Sizanani continues to change lives for the better. As one 13-year-old camper named Busi put it, “I came here empty, but now I am full.”
The cost of sending one child to camp and Kids Club sessions throughout the year is $500. Tax-deductible donations of any amount can be made online (www.globalcampsafrica.org) or mailed to Global Camps Africa, 1606 Washington Plaza, Reston, Virginia 20190.