Still there for HIV-positive Ukraine kids

Maple Grove resident volunteers with Peace Corps

SUN PRESS Newspapers

Abby Anderson of Maple Grove recently sat down with a little girl to help her paint a picture about what her life was like. The little girl chose dark colors, covering her paper over and over with them until it was a sopping mess.
Anderson met the girl while serving in the Peace Corps in Ukraine. Anderson was working as a counselor at a camp for HIV-positive children.

Abby Anderson of Maple Grove recently went to the Ukraine as part of the Peace Corps. She worked with HIV positive kids at Camp OHALOW.
Abby Anderson of Maple Grove recently went to the Ukraine as part of the Peace Corps. She worked with HIV positive kids at Camp OHALOW.

“’Everyone at school knows my status,’” she recalled the girl saying. “No one wants to talk to me. I just sleep in school.’”
Stories like this girl’s were the reason why Anderson wanted to help start Camp OHALOW, which stands for Overcoming HIV and Leading Our World. The week-long camp for HIV-positive children ages 8 to 14 focuses on leadership, managing their day-to-day lives with the illness, and, most importantly, giving them a genuine camp experience, free from the stigma they face in their everyday lives.
“A lot of these kids come from orphanages or villages where they’re discriminated against. This is their only chance to interact with other kids who are like them. It’s a safe place for them to be a kid,” she said.
Camp OHALOW began in 2011 with 30 children. Next year, Anderson hopes to secure the funding to welcome 60 campers.
Anderson began her journey with the Peace Corps two years ago, just months after receiving a degree in child and family ministry from Crown College in St. Bonifacius.
Eastern Europe was one of her top location choices and so she was thrilled when she was assigned to Ukraine. Once there, the Peace Corps provided her with three months of intensive training on language, vocation and culture.
“It was a big adjustment, I’m not going to lie,” she recalled with a laugh. “It’s really interesting. They have such a rich culture, a lot of history behind it. An old, old culture.”
Her volunteer experience with the Minnesota AIDS Project helped prepare her for working with the kids at Camp OHALOW. She’s also learning a lot of new skills, not only how to get a project off the ground but how to make it sustainable. She’s become very good at grant writing.
And she never forgets her campers. She and her fellow counselors hold mini camp sessions in larger cities throughout the year to let former campers and others like them know, according to Anderson, “we’re still there for them.”
As for the little girl with the dark painting, Anderson told her that she wanted to be her friend. She told her she loved her. All of the other counselors gathered around and echoed her sentiments.
The little girl pulled out another sheet of paper and slowly chose different, brighter colors. She painted a happy picture of herself and her new friends.
Anderson and the little girl have kept in touch since the camp ended.
“That little girl calls me or I call her pretty much every day since camp ended,” she said. “It’s one of the things that keeps her going.”

Contact Dawn Feddersen-Poindexter at [email protected]