Using a Childhood Passion to Help Children at Risk

Philip Lilienthal, right, demonstrates how to balance a person on his knees at a children's camp in South Africa.

By Philip Lilienthal

A native New Yorker, I got my first major dose of education as a camper at my father’s summer camp in Maine, and my second as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa. Both experiences have played a part in my encore career, using the intervention of camp to help African children understand the dangers of HIV/AIDS.

I was a “Kennedy kid,” inspired by the young man born in the 20th century and speaking the language that called so many of us to action. Even before the Peace Corps, I was inspired by a man who spoke at my college about the excitement of working alongside Africans – in their surroundings – to improve lives.

The man was the Rev. James Robinson, who started Operation Crossroads Africa. The day I graduated from the University of Virginia law school, my wife and I flew to Los Angeles to start our Peace Corps training. We ended up serving in Ethiopia, where our first son was born.

While there, the opportunity came up for me to start Ethiopia’s first permanent summer camp. Fortunately, one of the Peace Corps workers knew of my family’s camp background and, perhaps, of my love of camp.

I ran the camp much as I remembered my father’s camp – Camp Winnebago, although the facilities were simpler. The idea was to show children that the prejudices they held for each other’s tribal backgrounds were based on myths. As the children played with each other, and worked on fun camp projects together, they began to understand and appreciate their common bonds.

By the time I left Ethiopia two years later, 275 children had attended four summer camp sessions, and the YMCA had agreed to continue the program.

Returning to the United States, I practiced law, went into my father’s camp business, and never lost track of the significant role I thought camp could play in the lives of children in the developing world.

After 30 years of juggling the practice of law and owning and operating a summer camp in Maine, I was ready to move on. I had spoken of my interest in returning to Africa for 30 years and it was always good cocktail party chit-chat. Now it was time to do what I spoke of doing.

My Ethiopia-born son had agreed to take over the Maine camp, and I spent May of 2003 traveling to Botswana, Kenya and South Africa, looking for a partner with whom to work. I got together with a group in South Africa. We opened our first camp in January 2004 through our new nonprofit, WorldCamps (now Global Camps Africa).

The overriding purpose was to address HIV/AIDS education in South Africa. It seemed to us that schools, churches, even families, were not adequately informing children. South Africa had the most HIV-positive people in the world. (It still does.) Camp, I thought, might be a good educational vehicle, and it could give the young people the best times of their lives.

Nearly nine years later, 4,600 youngsters have been through the camp program. Most have attended the after-camp Kids Clubs, which meet every two weeks to re-enforce and enhance what the young people learned at camp. So far Global Camps Africa has made partnerships with South African, Lesotho and Ugandan organizations.

What began as belief in the power of camp has become a model for changing the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable children.