The YMCA of the Pines in Medford hosts Camp Bright Feathers, a free overnight summer camp to support children 6 to 17 in the area affected by HIV/AIDS or community violence.
After more than 30 years, the camp has continued to provide a memorable and impactful experience in a stress-free environment. Its original mission was to create a place of safety, fun, and refuge for children who were ostracized due to a lack of knowledge about AIDS.
Roger Houghkirk has been a counselor since the camp’s beginning in 1992 and relishes the fact that it continues to grow as children benefit from the experience.
“The mission is still the same,” he said. “We’ve expanded it to kids (affected by) community violence, which is the same demographic.”
This year’s five-day August camp hosted more than 60 campers and volunteers; in its history, Camp Bright Feathers has served 3,000 campers whose overnight experience allows them to try new things and create lasting bonds as they get away from problems at home.
“With all the shootings going on and mass violence, it’s a safe place to
come for kids to be themselves, not be the parent at home and learn new things,” Houghkirk explained.
Camp President and CEO Mark Dibble is committed to enhancing the lives of every child.
For staff and volunteers alike, the camp is a beacon of hope the children might not realize they need.
“The overall experience of the kids coming to the camp is self-realization, a better understanding of themselves,” he noted. “The core values of camp are honesty, respect, integrity, courage, and inclusion. As a result, the campers go home, and the parents see a difference. We want them to be a better version of themselves.
“Parents express their excitement over the transformation of their children after attending camp,” Dibble added. “Depending on the age of the campers, they may not be aware of how closely we’re watching them as they get that sense of independence and self-actualization and a feeling of resilience.”
The camp in recent years has drawn children who live in cities impacted by gun violence and those with disabilities, but the goal remains the same: making children feel included and a part of something bigger than themselves. The camp has also served kids with autism and disabilities, regardless of their physical capacities.
Houghkirk recalled a moment in the camp’s early years, when the mother of a young boy battling AIDS noticed he still had glitter on him after a week of activities. He died shortly after, and she laid him to rest – with glitter on his face.
While spending the week at Camp Bright Feathers, kids are exposed to activities such as camping, boating and challenges to enhance creativity. There is also an abundance of natured-themed activities, one of which involved a tractor ride where kids learned about the story of the camp and a spirit that watches over them.
Funding for the camp comes from financial aid and scholarship programs, and there are also reduced fees based on need.