In the Santa Monica Mountains, in a summer camp located high above Neptune’s Net, a group of 75 teenagers scurried around last Saturday getting ready to perform for a gala event. Hollywood HEART’s annual summer camp for young people affected by HIV/AIDS was coming to a close.

Each of the campers had spent the better part of a week working on projects with one of seven creative arts groups — visual, fashion, acting, culinary, documentary filmmaking, music or creative writing. All kinds of resources were put at their disposal: Musical instruments, sewing machines, the camp’s commercial kitchen, and even professional mobile film-editing equipment — not to mention a number of real Hollywood types who drop in to give lessons. 

Camp Hollywood HEART has welcomed Charlize Theron, David Arquette, Michelle Williams, Daisy Fuentes and Cuba Gooding Jr., among many others. The creator of “SpongeBob SquarePants,” Steve Hillenberg, teaches an animation workshop every summer. John Gatins, Oscar-nominated screenwriter, is a board member and writing team captain. 

All of that work culminates in the final evening’s gala, when the campers present their creations on stage at the camp’s outdoor amphitheater to an audience of donors and special guests. 

It all started back in 1995 with founder David Gale, Malibu resident and current CEO of The Mighty Networks, Inc. and Synchronous Media Group, Inc. Previously executive vice-president of MTV Films, he oversaw the successful release of 26 films, including “Blades of Glory,” “The Longest Yard” and “Coach Carter.” His films grossed more than a billion dollars at the box office, and seven were No. 1 their opening weekends, including “Jackass the Movie” and “Beavis and Butthead do America.”

“I can’t explain why I have these epiphanies about doing something, but it was 1994 and you couldn’t turn on the TV without hearing about AIDS, and you’d feel there’s this incredible crisis,” Gale said when asked why he founded Hollywood HEART. “I always felt better growing up when I could actually do something,” like when he volunteered at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple food pantry.

Gale said he “loved camp” as a child, heard about AIDS camps for kids on the East Coast, and began exploring the idea of starting his own. He visited one in New Jersey. 

“HIV/AIDS kids weren’t allowed to go to regular summer camp,” he said.. 

Gale started his nonprofit Hollywood HEART and the camp in 1995, and it’s been going strong ever since, although it evolved over the years. 

Hollywood HEART used to accept young campers of various ages, but today it’s limited to ages 15-20. While some have HIV/AIDS, others are affected in some other way — a parent or other close relative may have died from it, or is infected by it. Although the campers come from all over the U.S., a majority come from Southern California. About 70 percent of the teens come from low-income families and most are minorities. 

Volunteer Coordinator Stephanie Lyskawa explained that camp costs about $1,500 per camper, but all expenses are paid by donations and sponsorships, including airfare. 

“Every year there’s a waitlist,” Lyskawa said. Over 150 volunteers come in during camp week. 

One dedicated volunteer, Janet Osherow, a social worker from Washington, D.C., raises funds to bring 10 campers every year. She flies in with them and stays at the camp all week.

The camp focuses on the arts in order “to give the kids a sense of accomplishment and empowerment,” Gale said. 

“We feel we can help them discover how to express themselves and their identity,” he continued. “It’s not about talent; it’s about learning to believe in yourself.”

“The thing about this place that’s most remarkable, and every kid says it, is not being judged,” Gale observed. “Most teens feel insecure and people don’t usually encourage them. HIV/AIDS is just one of many issues they’re facing, but I see hopefulness here.”

Even though the camp is only one week long, Gale said he believes the effects last for the rest of the year. 

“They stay in touch with each other,” he said. “I know it works, and it’s powerful and amazing.”

 

Anyone interested in volunteering for Camp Hollywood HEART or teaching ongoing Educational Arts Workshops can get more information here: hollywoodheart.org/volunteer

To sponsor a camper or give a gift card, go to: hollywoodheart.org/donate.

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