In the San Bernardino National Forest, near Big Bear Lake, half a dozen campers join hands and make a circle around an immense lodgepole tree.
They stand quietly, gazing skyward, trying to get a glimpse of the tree’s highest branch. The lodgepole is 5 centuries old, a measureless length of time for children with HIV or AIDS.
This ritual is part of a nature hike, one of the many activities offered to the 117 youngsters attending Camp Laurel, a weeklong summer camp for 6- to 16-year-olds living with HIV or AIDS.
The camp provides a place for children to forget about their illness and just enjoy being kids.
“When they come to camp, the kids know that we know they have AIDS and that we don’t care, that we’re going to treat them normal and love them and just be with them,” said Madhu Narayan, director of operations for Camp Laurel. “Our goal is to create a very comfortable environment for the kids that is physically and emotionally safe.”
Most of the campers this summer have come from Los Angeles and San Diego. They have participated in such activities as swimming, archery, canoeing, horseback riding and maneuvering an obstacle rope course.
“Our goal with all the exercises is to let the kids know that they can do anything that they set their minds to,” Narayan said.
The camp, which is free, has a full medical staff of doctors, nurse practitioners and RNs to oversee medications and handle emergencies. Camp Laurel Foundation Inc. is a nonprofit organization founded in 1993. It is the first camp of its kind in Southern California.