|AIDS camp offers hugs, acceptance|
Tommy Williams (right) gets a hug from Ginny
West Case, director of the Strength for the Journey retreat near Johnson
City, Tenn. A UMNS photo by John Gordon.
By John Gordon*
Nov. 22, 2006 | JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (UMNS)
When those infected with HIV/AIDS first started coming to this camp
in the mountains of eastern Tennessee, they were preparing to die.
But as medical advances have extended their lives, the focus of the
United Methodist retreat has changed to helping them learn to live.
Since 1997, United Methodists in the Holston Annual (regional)
Conference have sponsored two week-long "Strength for the Journey"
retreats each year for adults living with HIV/AIDS. Buffalo Mountain
Retreat Center near Johnson City hosts the camps in the spring and the
Campers and volunteers join in a group discussion at the Strength for the Journey retreat. A UMNS photo by John Gordon.
"The main thing, as we say in our motto, is 'It's all about love,'"
said Ginny West Case, retreat director. Case also is director of
adult ministries at First United Methodist Church in Maryville, Tenn.
"We want them to feel like this is a place where they can come. It's
safe. They can experience God's unconditional love," she explained.
Darrell Fleeman, 44, was diagnosed in 1988 and has "been through a long road. It was two years before I even told anybody."
At the mountain retreat, campers find acceptance - something often
lacking in the neighborhoods where they live. Some have been
shunned by their families, friends and churches.
"It is difficult. But, as you go on, things get easier," said
Thomas McLaughlin, who was diagnosed with AIDS four years ago. "I know
there is no cure for AIDS, but I'm just learning to live with it."
Thanks to combinations of drugs and other medical treatments, some of
the campers have survived more than 20 years since they were
diagnosed. But the stigma of the disease remains.
Thomas McLaughlin ties a quilt during a
craft session at the retreat. A UMNS
photo by John Gordon.
"I missed out on seeing my nieces and nephews grow up, because they
were not allowed to be near me because of the ignorance of their
parents," said Buddy Loveridge, who has been coming to the retreats for
eight years. "And that happens a lot, still,"
Attitudes are much different on Buffalo Mountain. "We had one man
(whose) family made him eat on only disposable paperware and use plastic
forks. And he died two weeks after the retreat," said Case.
"His sister called and said, 'Thank you for giving my brother one week
where he knew he was loved and accepted, with no holds barred.'"
During the retreats, campers can paddle canoes, hike up a mountain to
a waterfall and enjoy arts and crafts. They meet in small groups
each day to discuss their challenges.
Volunteer staffers and retreat participants exchange notes which are
placed in affirmation folders to help keep the campers' spirits up after
they come down from the mountain. "I have a drawer at home, and when
bad things happen, I go to that drawer and pull them out and remember
the good times," said Loveridge. "It gets me through."
Campers also receive stuffed animals with the telephone numbers of group
leaders, who they are told to call if they feel depressed or suicidal.
Darrell Fleeman (left) and James Farris paddle a canoe at the United Methodist Church's Buffalo Mountain Retreat
Center in eastern Tennessee. A UMNS photo by John Gordon.
From the moment they arrive, campers can expect to receive lots of
hugs. "A lot of people don't get any hugs at home," said Case. "We
feel like some of them are so hungry for touch and to feel that
somebody's not afraid to touch them and not afraid to hug them."
Mandy Adkins, 25, a social worker and volunteer at the camp, said her
grandfather struggled with AIDS for two decades until he died two years
ago. She added that she was impressed by the "genuine loving
attitude" at the retreat.
"It's like the pretenses fall away, and it's just safe to be who you
are, and it's safe for the campers to be who they are," said
Adkins. "And I think that comes out of the true love that happens
here and happens for each other."
Ann Siemsen, a nurse and volunteer at the camp, called the retreat a
"wonderful experience" for both campers and staffers. "You can't go away
from this place untouched," she said.
*Gordon is a freelance producer and writer based in Marshall, Texas.
News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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