A Place to Share: My South African Journey

by Cheryl Bernknopf, R.N.

I can't believe that it was only one year ago, at the Annual Conference of the Ontario Camping Association, that I heard a man by the name of Phil Lilienthal, chief executive officer, Global Camps Africa (formerly World- Camps), speak to the members about something that was soon going to change my life forever. I had never heard of Global Camps Africa before this conference, but from that moment forward it was going to play a major role in my life. He spoke lovingly about a project that he had begun for the children of South Africa, a camp called Sizanani (Zulu for helping each other), for children who have been affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic on that continent. Since I began my career in nursing almost thirty years ago, my interest has always been in pediatrics, so this man easily began to pull at my heartstrings as he continued to talk to us about what his vision was. If that wasn't enough to get me thinking of what I could do to involve myself in his camp, then the BBC documentary he showed us that was made about Camp Sizanani was the final straw. Once I saw those children's faces on the screen, I knew that South Africa was calling my name and that I needed to go to Camp Sizanani to volunteer my time, and my camp and nursing experience. I went up to Phil after he had finished his presentation and asked him, "Where do I sign up?" I think that the other Health Care Committee members sitting at my table laughed because they knew at that moment that I was now determined to go to Camp Sizanani.

On Monday, November 27, 2006, I boarded my South African Airways flight to begin my journey that was going to mark some of the best memories of my life. I had a few days before precamp began and for the staff to acclimate me to a new time zone and a wonderfully new culture. Precamp included the six volunteers from North America and the twenty-plus staff from South Africa. Excitement was high and the nerves were present as we rolled out of the Baragwaneth Hospital parking lot in a large bus together, setting out on our journey to Camp Sizanani, to work with the campers, boys ages ten to fifteen (at this camp session, although some sessions are for girls). For the ride up I sat and chatted with a young man, Lebo, who had been a camper and was now a junior counselor, or Vocelli as we were to be called. He was continuing to work with Camp Sizanani because he wanted to give something of what he received a few years ago back to others now attending the camp.

The ice was broken over a very short period of time, and soon we were acting like oldtime friends with no barriers to cross. Language and culture barriers seemed to melt as we worked together towards our goal, which was to make camp for these boys a safe, fun place where we could help them to learn life skills that would hopefully improve their lives. It was not just a coincidence that World AIDS Day fell on December 1, during our staff training, and it really hit home as to why we were all there. The property that was used for the camp is beautiful, with cactus growing wild, fields of grape vines, lots of land for the children to run and explore, and cabins and buildings that you would find at any campsite in North America. So very different from the meager houses these children come from. From Michelle, who works with HIVSA (HIV South Africa); to Phil (the founder); Jackie (the camp director); Mellowman and Master P (the assistant directors); and all of the other staff (too many to name), I was able to learn so much from them to make my experience at camp so effective for not only the kids but also for myself. What an amazing learning experience!

From the moment the children jumped off the buses to begin their camp experience to the moment they all returned safely to their villages, orphanages, and their families, we all experienced a whirlwind of fun. The soccer tournament (a sport that is strong in their culture), including cheering for one of the youngest campers who was right in there playing soccer even though he had previously suffered a stroke due to AIDS; the swimming lessons (I was fortunate enough to be invited to teach them); nutrition classes (a necessity for their growth and development); life skills lessons (HIV/AIDS, drugs/alcohol, sex); theatre; African dance and drumming (all a big part of their culture); adventures; campfires; skits; and a Miss Sizanani contest (where the male counselors competed) were some of the fun activities of the camp.

Not only did I have the privilege to look after the campers' and staff 's health care needs (of which I felt proud to do), but I also was welcomed as a Vocelli and was able to be involved in all of the camp activities. One sight I will never forget is on the first day, at dinner time, I noticed children piling food in their pockets because they didn't believe they would see so much food every day. This daily ritual continued until they relaxed and realized that plentiful meals were going to be an everyday experience. I even had the opportunity to make balloon animals for everyone during Carnival Day, play the role of an old lady in a skit, participate in Pootjie Kos Tyd, and arrive at the banquet dressed up as a South African musician by the name of Mercy Pakelo (whom I was told that I looked like). Before I realized it, it was time to tearfully place the children back on the buses and watch them roll out, each with a piece of my heart. I will always believe that I somehow was able to make a small difference in each of their lives, because I know for a fact that they made a huge difference in mine. I hope one day to make this journey again. It is only through helping others that we can learn, live, and love.

Cheryl Bernknopf, R.N., is the assistant director of Centauri Summer Arts Camp in Wellandport, Ontario, and a Health Care Committee member of the Ontario Camping Association.

Originally published in the 2008 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.