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Papa Viva: Rollins College Alumnus Creates Safe Haven for Families Affected by AIDS

By Meagan Harkins

With the world in a frenzy from the mysterious HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, Westchester County had the third largest rate of HIV infection in New York. Affected parents especially struggled during the summers as they skipped medical appointments and caring for themselves while tending to their kids who were home from school. To create a respite for these families, Camp Viva,  an annual sleepaway camp tucked away in southeast New York, was born.

“Viva” is the Latin term for “life,” notes Tony Lembeck, a founding volunteer for Camp Viva and a 1979 Sullivan Award winner at Sullivan Foundation partner school Rollins College. “It’s all about living,” said Lembeck, who’s also a real estate broker in Savannah, Georgia. “It’s all about life.”

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Opened in 1994, Camp Viva was the first HIV-focused family camp in Westchester County and the second in the state. “The whole family was affected by somebody’s infection,” Lembeck said. Putting adults in cabins together, away from their children, not only provides a little breathing room, but also allows friendships to grow beyond AIDS as a common experience.

Children are strategically placed with one another by age group, partially for fun, but also to learn about separation. In those early years, a family unit did not always last with an AIDS diagnosis, as parents often died after one or two summers at Camp Viva and their children entered foster care or went to live with other relatives. “Coping with the impending separation was a very important product of what we achieved,” Lembeck said.

Tony “Papa Viva” Lembeck reads to young campers during a rest period at Camp Viva.

“AIDS and HIV were not discussed at all,” he added. “This was just camp and was run almost exactly as a traditional summer camp runs. Kids learned they could have fun and make friends away from their parents, and, unfortunately, this became a very important life lesson.”

Camp Viva has been a safe haven for families dealing with HIV ever since, a place where they don’t have to face discrimination or hide their health diagnosis. Campers and volunteers alike are treated the same, as if they all face the same health issues. “Just knowing they could be loved, that changed peoples’ lives,” Lembeck said. “We have documented evidence, conversations with people who, once they spent one summer at Camp Viva, stayed on their medicine longer, even if it didn’t make them feel well, because they wanted to be healthy enough to come back to Viva so they could give their kids another summer of camp.”

A Friend and Mentor
Lembeck, who grew up in a predominantly Jewish community in New York, discovered his love of summer camps as a child attending Camp Tomahawk in New Hampshire. There, he started out as a camper and later became a counselor, color war general and head of the tennis program.

He moved to Florida to attend Rollins College in the 1970s for tennis and the warm weather. “I became who I am because I went there,” he said. “People can really find themselves at Rollins because it’s a small college.”

Lembeck spent his afternoons working in the school bookstore and recalls the day when a certain man on a tour of the campus stopped him for a conversation. Lembeck was surprised when that man, Thaddeus Seymour, later became president of Rollins College and remembered their brief meeting.

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From then on, Seymour affectionately referred to Lembeck as his “first friend,” Lembeck said. “Thad was just a regular guy that had been the president of Wabash College, and before that he was the dean of Dartmouth College. He made it very clear to me that there was a side door to his office. I didn’t need to go through the entryway.”

Lembeck used that door on several occasions. “It was [a matter of having a very important person make me feel nine feet tall,” noted Lembeck, who stands 5’4.

Seymour was a magician, drove an old Volkswagen Beetle, and rode his bike to work. Lembeck, who played guitar and wrote music, invited Seymour to be his opening act prior to local shows on several occasions. Lembeck also became friends with the Seymour family, even escorting Seymour’s daughter to her birthday dinner at Apple Annie’s.

Tony Lembeck on graduation day at Rollins College

Lembeck considers Seymour his greatest mentor, someone who helped him build up his confidence and navigate failure. “A good mentor makes somebody understand that failing at something doesn’t mean failing at life,” Lembeck said. “Mentoring is one of the most giving things that a person can do because it shows an individual that someone else believes in them.”

One of Lembeck’s greatest college achievements was helping to form Rollins College’s Jewish Student Union. “When I started college, it was the first time I was in the minority,” he said. The Union’s primary event was a campus-wide Seder, a dinner during Passover commemorating the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. The first of its kind at Rollins, Lembeck went to the Beanery each year prior to the dinner to meet with the head chef, taking the opportunity to symbolically kosher the kitchen by cleaning one pan together. Their inaugural event brought in 15 students. By Lembeck’s senior year, more than 100 students joined the celebration.

At the event, Lembeck sat at the head of the table with Seymour by his side. “He saw it as an imperative not only that the campus was nondenominational, but that everybody in the community was treated equally,” Lembeck recalled. “Nobody’s better, nobody’s worse.”

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It was Seymour who nominated Lembeck for the Sullivan Award in 1979. “It is one of the big surprises in my life,” Lembeck said. “It was a very proud moment to be able to receive such an honor in front of my parents. It was a shock.”

“Perhaps the award came to me because Thad Seymour and I philosophically believed in openness of equality, that everyone should be the same,” he added.

The community fostered through the Jewish Student Union grew and evolved and into the Rollins Hillel, an inclusive, pluralistic campus organization that allows students from all backgrounds to celebrate, explore and deepen their connection to Judaism.

At the end of each summer session, Camp Viva holds a ceremony for graduates of Viva University.

A Circle of Inclusiveness
After graduating from Rollins, Lembeck earned his law degree from the University of Miami. But he soon recognized that practicing law meant “too much time behind a desk.” He then entered the family textile business, followed by several years in the theatre business, and, with the guidance of a mentor, real estate.

Early on in his real estate career, Lembeck also became associate director of Camp Cobbossee, a boys’ sleepaway camp in Maine. He eventually partnered in the camp with the owner, who happened to be Lembeck’s former counselor at Camp Tomahawk. When the AIDS epidemic exploded, one of Lembeck’s former campers at Camp Tomahawk began working with a group of 20 governmental, medical and social service agencies to develop Camp Viva. He asked for Lembeck’s creative assistance in developing programming for the new camp. The rest is history.

Everything Lembeck and his team do today at Camp Viva has meaning, including starting every morning together in a circle to represent inclusiveness. Lembeck, known as “Papa Viva,” even leads a high-energy hokey-pokey dance at 7 a.m. from the circle’s center.

“It’s magic,” he said, of seeing campers and volunteers relishing the freedom to just relax and be goofy. “Half of them don’t even know my name is Tony. There are 60-year-old people who only call me Papa Viva.”

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Attendees participate in six daily periods of activities, including sports like tai chi, swimming and boating, or simply sitting by the lake to read or taking part in group discussions or games. Among fun electives, adults also can choose between educational courses, high ropes, arts and crafts, cooking lessons, medicine-related classes and support groups.

One of the more recent additions to the programming is Viva University for adult campers. At the week’s start, participants are given a syllabus and choose classes based on their own passions and interests. They receive “credit” for these courses, and completion leads to a commencement ceremony. With the “Pomp and Circumstance” theme playing, individuals receive their diplomas in a ceremony that holds great significance for the “graduates” of Viva University.

Many of the adult campers did not complete high school, Lembeck said. During the first year Viva University was offered, just 50 percent of campers signed up and 80 percent of those graduated. They now proudly enjoy 100 percent participation of adult campers and a 100 percent graduation rate. “Everybody buys into it,” Lembeck said.

“I can’t even put into words the satisfaction of watching adults, whether they be a 30-, 40-, or 50-something-year-old man or woman, holding up their Viva diploma and knowing that they achieved something, even symbolically, that had otherwise not been possible,” he added.

Aside from graduation, Lembeck’s favorite activity is the annual talent show: Viva Viva Little Star. “I’ve cried so many times with pride and joy, seeing overly shy people getting onstage for the talent show,” he said. “Half of them have never performed before, but to hear the audience cheer for them, even if they don’t hit one note on key, is what Camp Viva is all about. We call it the Love Bomb.”

“Watching campers and volunteers alike, who may have come to camp not knowing anyone, hugging people like they were raised as siblings after just one week—you can’t put a price on that,” Lembeck said. The freedom of the Viva environment allows campers to let their guard down and step beyond their usual boundaries. Watching a child who’s afraid of the water muster up the courage to jump into the lake is one example of the daily little “sparks” that might change how a camper lives the rest of his or her life.

Volunteers welcome a new group of campers to Camp Viva.

Fighting Stigma and Inspiring Lives
“Early on, an HIV infection was more likely a death sentence,” Lembeck said. With the advent of antiretroviral therapy, it’s now considered a chronic illness, but the resulting medical issues cannot be discounted. Negative impacts include diabetes and heart- and lung-related issues. “It is no more important than diabetes, multiple sclerosis or cancer, but it’s no less important,” Lembeck said.

In the camp’s early years, more than 307,000 AIDS cases had been officially reported, with the actual number of infections estimated to be close to 1 million. Today, an estimated 35 million people are living with HIV worldwide. The death rate has significantly dropped because of the growing number of drug therapies available.

While the medical severity has lessened, the stigma of AIDS has persisted, Lembeck said. “In the ‘90s, it was a stigma you wore on your forehead, and people would stay away,” he said. “Nowadays, because more and more people are living with HIV, there is a different reality. However, there is still a social ostracization that requires a safe haven.”

“The importance of Camp Viva has a lot to do with the esteem and the strength that we give them to live their lives,” Lembeck continued. “They get off the bus, and people are cheering for them and showing them the Love Bomb they all come to know. From the moment the campers arrive, they know that there are people out there who don’t think ill of them.”

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Lembeck recalled a camper around his age back in 1994, Camp Viva’s first year. She was extremely sick at the time. Through sheer determination, loving support and the right medicines, she is still alive today and has come to camp every summer, eventually bringing her daughter and later her granddaughter. The woman is at full strength on some visits while physically struggling in other years. But the promised abundant life and friendship she has found at Viva is a bright light that has kept her going for 27 years and counting.

Lembeck also recalled bringing his own young daughters to camp one summer in the late 1990s and sending them to bunk with kids their own age. One of the young campers had been born to an HIV-positive mother, and the virus had been passed to her. She faced a life expectancy of about five years, and her mother died young. But the girl surpassed all expectations, was raised by her grandmother, and kept returning to camp for years. Today she is 32 years old, Lembeck said, with a family of her own and an almost zero viral load, thanks to the marvels of modern medicine.

Lembeck said he hopes these stories of friendship can help dispel preconceived notions about people with HIV and make the public more receptive to others’ experiences. “The most important thing anybody can do is listen,” he said. “The most important thing anyone can do when listening is to realize everybody’s experiences are different.”

To learn how you can get involved with or provide financial support to Camp Viva, contact campvivateam@gmail.com.