News Archives

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.


 Campers and volunteers join in a group discussion at the Strength for the Journey retreat. A UMNS photo by John Gordon.

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 fall.

"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."


Thomas McLaughlin ties a quilt during a
craft session at the retreat. A UMNS
photo by John Gordon.

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.

"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."


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.

Campers also receive stuffed animals with the telephone numbers of group leaders, who they are told to call if they feel depressed or suicidal.

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

Video Story

Care at AIDS Camp

Related video story

Campers Cope with AIDS

Related Articles

United Methodist HIV/AIDS camp offers hope

United Methodists must be AIDS ambassadors

Conference rallies faithful to global challenges of AIDS


World AIDS Day 2006

The Social Community

Theme Page: AIDS

Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance

Centers for Disease Control