Global Camps Africa (GCA), a U.S.-based 501(c)3 organization, established Camp Sizanani in 2004 in order to change the lives of
vulnerable children and youth affected by HIV and AIDS in South Africa. Campers are typically between 11 and 19 years old and from
high-risk, HIV-affected communities in Soweto. They stay at the residential camp for eight days, where they get needed respite from
daily challenges and are introduced to new skills, peers, and caring adults. Each day, they receive the layers of integrated information and support they need to become healthy and productive adults who translate knowledge into action to positively influence their futures.
Camp Sizanani weaves life skills and HIV education into activities, along with abundant fun, camaraderie, and adventure. Schedules usually include sports, nutrition, arts and crafts, theatre, and dancing and drumming and incorporate games, skits, storytelling, poetry, campfires, and issue discussions. The intensity of the shared time and experiences creates bonds, builds self-esteem, and gets campers to broach issues they do not raise at home or in school. After a camp session ends, many participants attend biweekly Youth Clubs in Johannesburg that reinforce what they learned and contribute to the support they need to realize their dreams and a positive and HIV-free future.
GCA’s current local partner, Camp Sizanani Life Skills Inc., works with local schools, churches and community organizations to identify the vulnerable youth who will attend the camp—about 140 in each residential session. To date, there have been more than 7,200 campers. The eight-day sessions are organized at least three times a year, typically in March, September, and December, preceded by four days of staff training. Counselors—between 30 and 40 for each session—are called “vochellis.” Recruited by the Camp Director (a South African), many are former campers or volunteers for other youth development organizations. The Director ensures that vochellis are positive role models who create a safe, caring, and fun environment that builds resiliency and hope for a brighter future.
GCA’s four-day training programs for vochellis was established by Michael Brandwein, a globally renowned trainer of camp staff (Brandwein 2008). Vochellis are not only trained to teach “level-one” or traditional camp skills, such as swimming, netball, soccer, and art. Their training program before each session incorporates HIV-prevention education, team and community building, positive discipline, and other youth development basics. The most important role of vochellis is to build and support “level-two” life skills, such as respect, teamwork, patience, perseverance, positive attitudes, and self-confidence. They use updated lesson plan manuals that support these objectives and weave in HIV prevention education. Vochellis stress the “so what” of an activity: campers come to recognize that they are learning valuable level-two skills and how they can apply these to mitigate daily struggles and make better choices.
Each camper may attend only one session so other vulnerable youth can benefit from the program. Former campers connect with each other and with vochellis at year-round Saturday Youth Clubs established by GCA at several locations around Soweto. The clubs aim to reinforce and add to campers’ HIV education and sustain the life skills, improved self-esteem, positive behaviors, and constructive bonds nurtured at Camp Sizanani.