Originally published in Lavender Magazine, May 2020
It’s one week where kids can truly be themselves, and hundreds of campers look forward to it all year. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the camps for youth living with or affected by HIV/AIDS, operated by One Heartland, are canceled, leaving the nonprofit facing an uncertain future.
Since 1993, Minneapolis-based One Heartland has provided camping to young people who didn’t have anywhere else to go. One Heartland Executive Director, Patrick Kindler, describes campers as, “Young people who are socially isolated, stigmatized and bullied. We provide a program where these young people can meet others dealing with similar circumstances where we provide a safe, supportive environment where they thrive and feel celebrated.”
One Heartland operates camp in Willow River, Minnesota, for youth ages seven to 17 years old. Before COVID-19 changed society, the nonprofit was planning a new session specifically for transgender and gender expansive youth. They were excited for Camp True Colors, a program dedicated to LGBT young people.
One Heartland also has a partner program in California that has deep roots in the entertainment industry, offering youth living with or affected by HIV/AIDS the opportunity to unlock their inner Hollywood star.
According to Kindler, “What makes One Heartland’s camps different is how it makes our young people feel. Our staff are for the most part either former campers or young people who come from the populations we serve.”
That includes Dallas Turner, originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her journey with One Heartland started at age 11, when she first attended as a camper. “I arrived to a wonderful place where smiles and warmth is all you see,” Turner tells Lavender.
Turner describes that One Heartland campers get to participate in a wide variety of skills, including gardening, biking, field sports, swimming, outdoor adventure and more.
“After all skills, camp gets ready for evening program, where camp turns into a magical place and all the staff are crazy characters going on crazy adventures. And with the help of campers, the adventures are always a success,” Turner says.
Turner has since decided to pay it forward, and is now on the Camp Heartland staff. “Becoming staff after all the years growing in the program was a huge deal to me. I wanted to be a part of the camp’s magic and once I saw behind the scenes, it’s what made me appreciate camp even more. Camp is an amazing experience. It’s family, it’s love, and laughter. It’s a support system that I will always cherish and love.”
Former camper Shawn Bryde also has a love for One Heartland. The Norfolk, Nebraska resident attended camp for three years starting at age 14, and then became a junior counselor when he was 17.
“I didn’t even know the camp existed until a few hours before I left for Minnesota. I had originally planned to go on a mission trip with my church that summer. But as I was a transgender 14-year-old living in Nebraska, my then pastor was uncomfortable with me. Days before we were to leave for the trip, he told me and my family I wouldn’t be allowed to go unless I went by my dead name and she/her pronouns. Luckily though, my parents had heard of Camp True Colors and contacted the directors. Even though the session had already started, they gave me and my family the okay and told us they were excited to have me. So instead of staying home to be upset at the church, my dad and I drove nine hours to the camp.”
That summer, Bryde found friends he would stay in touch with for years. “We are still very close, despite the distance and the fact we only see each other in the summer. A core group of us have been talking ever since we met as campers.”
One Heartland plays a vital role in the LGBT community. “Pretty much anyone in the LGBT+ community can relate to not feeling accepted,” Bryde tells Lavender. “Not only does One Heartland provide a camp for LGBT+ kids who feel this way, but also camps for children in housing instability, and children who are affected by HIV/AIDS. Every child deserves a fantastic summer camp experience, and camp One Heartland is just the place.”
The future of One Heartland
COVID-19 forced One Heartland to cancel all of its camps for 2020. “So many of our campers call One Heartland their ‘home away from home.’ Imagine something taking that away from you,” Kindler says.
One Heartland’s losses for the current fiscal year come in around $750,000. Due to the coronavirus, they had to cancel two fundraising events, and most of their rental groups have canceled. They cut three-quarters of their staff and reduced expenses everywhere possible. “We are working remotely and will be closing our office in Minneapolis in order to save money,” Kindler says.
One Heartland is working hard to make sure they can return in 2021. The youth who experience camp are counting on it. Kindler adds, “I can’t even begin to tell you how many times caregivers have told us their kids start packing their camp luggage months in advance.”
You can help One Heartland continue their mission by making a financial contribution. Donations of any size are welcome on their website, www.oneheartland.org. You can also start a fundraiser for the nonprofit through Facebook.