In late winter of 1992, the YMCA Camp Ockanickon’s Board of Directors, envisioned starting a camp for children infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. This was during a time when people didn’t understand HIV and were extremely fearful. However, this didn’t stop the board from approaching HIV organizations and seeking help in starting a camp. The organizations included Action AIDS of Philadelphia, AIDS Coalition of Southern New Jersey, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Circle of Care, Cooper Hospital, Reality House (known as Center for Family Services today), and St. Christopher’s Hospital. Together, they formed the first camp and named it Camp Bright Feathers. The first camp was held in August, 1992. Approximately 60 campers from the Philadelphia and South Jersey area boarded buses to come to Camp Matollionequay, the official home of Camp Bright Feathers. Campers were greeted by YMCA Staff and approximately 10 volunteers from the local HIV/AIDS organizations. It proved to be such a success that Camp Bright Feathers has become an annual experience since 1992. Camp Bright Feathers became the place where kids got the chance to be kids.
Early on Camp Bright Feathers realized that it was important to develop a camp based on the needs and feedback of the families we would be serving. There was a stigma attached to this disease. Consequently, many families choose not to disclose the child’s diagnosis to the child or the diagnosis of a family member to siblings, family, friends or the community. The requirement by other HIV/AIDS camps that children must be aware of the diagnosis prohibited children from participating in a positive camping experience. . Therefore, it was decided that CBF would offer a positive camping experience to children who are unaware of their own diagnosis or the diagnosis of the family member. We wanted all kids the chance to be kids by providing a safe, fun, and recreational experience.
During the first couple of years, the camp was under the leadership of the YMCA. However, the YMCA was realizing that Camp Bright Feathers was becoming a strong growing community program. So, in 1995, the YMCA began the process to formalize the organization and structure of Camp Bright Feathers. It was during this time that the first Planning Committee was formed. The overall function of the Planning Committee was to act as an advisory council to the development of camp. The Planning Committee comprised of YMCA Staff Members, Community Representatives and Agency Representatives. It was decided early on that the success of camp would be based on a Community Collaboration. Therefore, the Co-Chairs consisted of a YMCA Staff Member and a Community Representative.
To keep in the spirit of a community partnership, it was voted that the leadership of Camp Bright Feathers would consist of a Camp Director who represented an Agency or Community Partner and a Program Director who represented the YMCA. It was believed that this partnership would only enhance the development of the program and better service the campers. In 1996, the YMCA entered into an agreement with Barbara Maronski from Center for Family Services to provide the Camp Directorship. This partnership would last for 15 years before entering into agreement with Haven Youth Center after the resignation of Barbara.
During the early years, the camp’s focus was on bringing a recreational camping experience to campers between the ages of 6 and 13. However, in 1995, as part of the ongoing effort to improve the camp experience for both counselors and campers, the first session of a Counselor-In-Training program was founded. It was becoming more and more evident that we needed a program to teach our teen counselors how to handle difficult situations. We also were discovering that we needed a formal transition for campers coming of the age to become counselors and remain part of the Camp Bright Feather experience. The C.I.T. program was our answer to both of these tough issues. All of the teens participating in camp needed to learn exactly what it means to be a counselor, and Bright Feathers modeled a program after YMCA and other professional summer camp examples.
The foundation of the Counselor-In-Training program was developed and led by Alison Bernstein and Felix Oleaga. In its first year, a small number of teen counselors in training lived together in “Little House” with Alison and Felix. The program was a thrilling success. The teens were able to participate in camp while learning the skills and lessons necessary for becoming responsible, role model counselors. Many of the programs that are incorporated into today’s CIT program began that very first year. Bedtime stories, Carnival night, and the team-building program at the Initiatives course all began in 1995.
By 2005, we began to see an increase in our teen population. Camp Bright Feathers was graduating on average 12-20 campers a year. Unfortunately, our CIT program was designed to only accept 12 teens. We were going to have to place too many teens on a waiting list. So, in 2005, we implemented the first session of the Leadership-In-Training Program under the leadership of Michael Buonauro. The LIT program was designed for 14 and 15 year olds teens who were infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. The first program had 12 returning campers.
The ultimate goal of the camp was to build a community where campers, LITs, CITs felt pride and ownership of Camp Bright Feathers. It was the hopes early on that campers would move up the ranks from camper, LIT, CIT, volunteer, Village Chief and hopefully one day Camp Director. Camp Bright Feathers has had the privilege of witnessing this goal roll out. Each year, we witness the pride and ownership of each camper, LIT and CIT. We see it when the campers vote on the activities for the following year. We see it when the LITs stand up in front of the campers each morning and start them off with an inspirational speech. We witness it when the CITs run the carnival and lead the dining hall in announcements, greetings, and grace. We witness it when our campers are sitting in the dining hall as volunteers now. We witness it when a camper says “I want to be the director some day.” And we witnessed it in 2010 when Barbara Maronski passed on the Directorship to Will Brawner, CBF Camp Graduate, CIT, volunteer and Village Chief.
In 2013 Camp Bright Feathers moved to the other side of camp down to Ockanickon. In 2014 Camp Little Feathers was established. It serves the children (ages 3-6) of our volunteer staff members. After a successful 25th year of Camp Bright Feathers, Will has decided to hang up camp director’s hat and move on to bigger things. As CBF moves onto its next chapter we hope to continue the camps’ mission and to have more people join our family.
Camp Bright Feathers has been built on the foundation of strength and compassion of many special volunteers, campers, LITs and CITs. It doesn’t matter what year you volunteer, you are a part of a larger spirit of individuals that have made CBF such a success. Over the years, hundreds of people have contributed to the success of CBF.