Meeting the kids of Project Kindle
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    When I was ten years old, the biggest drama in my life concerned my crush on the neighborhood hottie who wore a neon green skater’s helmet everywhere. Inevitably, my older sister discovered my obsession and decided to ruin my entire life by making a public announcement at a very traumatic pool party. I ran home and spent the next four hours hiding in my laundry basket feeling like the most miserable little girl on the planet. But three years later, we moved away, and I promptly forgot nearly everything about my once one true love.

    Ally, one of Dance Marathon’s Project Kindle ambassadors. Photo courtesy of http://www.nudm.org/projectkindle

    Last Sunday afternoon, I went to the Louis Room in Norris to check out the first Project Kindle Adventure, a day of games, over-eating and bonding with the Project Kindle ambassadors (the kids our Dance Marathon money will directly benefit). When I got there, I immediately joined one of the two groups of 15 or so people and began playing camp-style games that allowed us DMers to get to know each other and the ambassadors. After the games, we convened and listened to the stories of the kids whose lives have been affected by HIV/AIDS. As I sat cross-legged listening to ten year-old Ally explain her experiences with the virus, I thought about what I was doing at her age and remembered my Helmet-Boy for the first time in years.

    Ally learned that her mother was infected with the HIV virus a little over a year ago, and since then has been an active member in Project Kindle’s SPEAK OUT program. As she told her story, Ally reminded me forcefully of myself at her age. Like 4th-grade me, Ally wants to be both an actress and President. Like me, she takes hip hop classes, is on the Student Council at school and absolutely loves to be the center of attention. But unlike me, Ally’s biggest problem won’t disappear if she moves to a new town.

    Ally, like many of her friends from Camp Kindle and fellow ambassadors, lives a double life. She does all of the things a normal 10 year old does, but she also travels with her mom into Chicago for health check-ups every three months. She goes to Camp Kindle during the summer, and she tours the Midwest with Project Kindle doing SPEAK OUT presentations at schools. She keeps her mother’s HIV status a secret from her friends at home, even her best friend. Many of the ambassadors keep their experiences with HIV/AIDS a secret from their friends outside of Camp Kindle in an attempt to live as normally as possible and avoid being ostracized if their peers knew the truth.

    Part of me was expecting this event to be forced or awkward, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. YoYo kept us laughing throughout the day with her witty jokes, Tyler ate so much candy he was rolling on the floor in a giggling fit and Dominique shared a beautiful poem he’d written himself. I was shown over and over again how important Project Kindle is in their lives and how grateful they are that we have chosen to partner with their organization.

    Somewhere between untying a massive human knot and playing charades with a walking stick, I rediscovered my dedication to Dance Marathon, which is something I’d sort of buried under work, papers and class registration.

    Naturally, I admire these kids for their courage and their unflinching hope. But at the same time, I wish I could admire them just for being smart and engaging youngsters. I wish Ally could live a completely normal life, without the secrets or the constant worry for her mother’s health. I wish the other ambassadors, many of whom are HIV positive themselves, could live peacefully without worrying how their friends might react to the truth. While I am inspired by their strength, I wish, in an earnest and indignant way, that these amazing people could be told with certainty that HIV/AIDS will be cured and they will live completely normal lives — replete with wonderfully silly problems like my Helmet-Boy.

    After all the games, eating and sharing were over, we all put our arms around each other and sang along to “Seasons of Love” (a Camp Kindle tradition). While tunelessly belting “525,600 minutes,” I finally understood why so many of us are going to spend the next four months canning in the frozen streets of Evanston, shamelessly squeezing our friends and relatives for donations and then stuffing ourselves like sweaty sardines into the Louis Room for thirty hours. Somewhere between untying a massive human knot and playing charades with a walking stick, I rediscovered my dedication to Dance Marathon, which is something I’d sort of buried under work, papers, class registration and everything else that tends to occupy space in my mind.

    I fell in love with Dance Marathon last year because I saw that it was a way for college students to have a part in making the world a better place. What I learned this weekend was that Dance Marathon’s significance doesn’t just come from its ability to do good or to help in an abstract way. It’s also an opportunity to improve the lives of absolutely incredible kids whom we can actually meet in tangible ways. It’s to make sure that kids like Ally, YoYo, Tyler and Dominique can be as normal as any other kid without feeling ashamed of themselves in any capacity, and to provide hope that one day their biggest childhood problem will be a distant and fuzzy memory.

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