For 66 years, Camp Knutson outside of Crosslake has been known for its charitable camps for children and families in special circumstances. From heart conditions, skin conditions, autism and Down syndrome, Camp Knutson is a special place for campers to congregate for a fun time.
One such camp, Camp Benedict, is particularly special because of how it has changed in the past 25 years.
Camp Benedict, which was held the first week in June, serves people impacted by or suffering from HIV and AIDS, along with their families. Though it was founded 25 years ago, it is still the only free camp that serves families and adults impacted by HIV and AIDS.
Renee Steffen, a nurse from Brainerd, and the late Connie Statz, one of the first confirmed HIV/AIDS victims in Crow Wing County, founded the camp. Statz learned firsthand the importance of the type of unity and support HIV/AIDS victims needed after contracting the disease from a blood transfusion during an emergency hysterectomy.
Until her death in 2015, Statz maintained the camp as a place where sufferers and their families could find relief and support. She also witnessed how that relief and support changed dramatically over the years.
"Camp Benedict has been around 25 years now," said Sheila DeChantal, the camp's vice president. "Its purpose has changed throughout the years. It is mainly to assist families that are either infected or affected by the HIV/AIDS virus. It could be yourself, a sibling, a parent, a child. A family of choice."
When the infection was still barely known, some focus was paid toward forming a camp that was secretive and protective, because discussing AIDS was taboo and infected individuals were often looked down on.
"We started 25 years ago keeping it a quiet, protected, safe environment focusing on the biology and social aspects," said Robert David Andrews-Mendoza, Camp Benedict president. "Now we are talking about quality of life."
"Connie Statz, who started camp originally, said that first year it was mainly talking about how to tell your family and planning your funeral," DeChantal said. "While it is a large rock in your life, it's not the rock."
"There wasn't a ton of hope in the early days that you would get better and lead a really long life," said Camp Knutson Director Jared Griffin. "That's how it is now. There's been a lot of education and resources. Getting the people together here to get connected to other resources in our community too."
With advances in treatment prolonging life compared to 25 years ago, Camp Benedict is now more for emotional support and improving quality of life. Back when Statz was first denied, she sought help at AA meetings because there was no support for AIDS victims, and today there is Camp Benedict.
"It's not just the individual that has a medical condition that really needs the help and support," Griffin said. "It's the whole family and how we can bring their families together and be even stronger after the experience is all over. We don't always even know who has been impacted by the condition. Quite frankly, it doesn't matter. What matters is there is a real opportunity for people to come together and build a community of support around each other and be able to work through whatever needs they might be. Right now a lot of the focus is on mental health stuff."
Camp is part education, part support network and part traditional summer camp. For the adults, the days start with educational sessions and resource fairs on self care, yoga, support options, male and female health breakout sessions, mental health and many other topics. During this time, the kids are enjoying typical camp activities under the guidance of camp staff.
After educational sessions there is free time where campers interact, followed by planned family activities. In addition to family activities, Camp Benedict provides an environment and resources for affected families to grow together. Some campers have learned for the first time, under the guidance of therapists, that a parent or other family member is infected with the HIV or AIDS virus. Camp provides a safe place for those discussions.
"When she started this she was insistent this stay a family camp," Andrews-Mendoza said of Statz. "She wanted support when she reached out to her communities, but she was more concerned about getting support for their own family. How would they live with their mother living with this? That continues to drive the narrative today."
"In the afternoon we also take them horseback riding, or go on pontoon rides to Dairy Queen, or basically give them an opportunity to do things they normally don't get the opportunity to do in their normal lives, and do it as a family," Griffin said. "A lot of them said they just want to rejuvenate. They just want to let the rest of their worries be put to rest for a while. That's what we are doing here for camp this week."
"There's something about bringing people out of their environment and putting them in this environment that changes people," Andrews-Mendoza said.
The escape camp offers is now a major attraction for many campers and their families. Camper Alzola Wash first attended Camp Benedict in 2018 after her youngest son, of six children, was stomped into a coma the day after Thanksgiving. He died seven months later, but camp offered Alzola an escape from that as well as other personal struggles.
"Camp, to me, was a relief," Wash said. "A place to get my head together. I brought my youngest daughter and granddaughters to give them that experience. I knew they probably would never have it. It was kind of a stress reliever. We got here and it was better than I thought it would be. I loved it. When I had the opportunity to come back, of course I did."
Her first year she brought her daughter and granddaughters. She said the opportunity offered them experiences that they were not privy to living in the Cities, like horseback riding, riding inner tubes on the lake and generally enjoying the quiet of nature. The family also made personal connections.
"My daughter kept in contact with some of the camp leaders on Facebook," Wash said. "Hopefully she wants to apply to work here next year. It's a great place. It's more adults than children, but it's a place you can come for beautiful scenery and lakes. I met some great people. Even when my son passed away they reached out to me. I thought that was very beautiful. They didn't forget about my situation."
Wash also likes helping her fellow campers. A former teacher and mentor, she enjoys taking younger campers under her wing. That unity and support is something a lot of campers depend on.
James Velek has come to Camp Benedict five times. He originally came to camp in need of support and guidance.
"My first year here was in 2001," Velek said. "That year I had lost 17 friends due to HIV or deaths related to it. I was seeing my therapist. She mentioned the camp. I came to camp. I was very nervous and alone. I felt isolated and there was a feeling of community and unity even though I didn't know anybody here. I guess it was the first time I started to realize I wasn't alone. That was what made this place special for me."
Velek says after camp he returns home feeling rejuvenated and empowered by the unity and support and friendship, something that was lacking before.
Now, Velek helps others coming to the camp for the first time. He's found that he has experiences that can help others and he can be an inspiration.
"Two weeks after I turned 34 I had a major stroke," Velek said. "I was paralyzed from the neck down. It turned my world upside down. It makes my handicap very visible to people. It isn't for other people. I think one of the things that empowers me is when I leave here I know they know I'm inspiring them. I feel very empowered myself for what I've done. This year there is a guy named Ernie in a wheelchair. I've never met him before but I'm looking forward to connecting this week."
Camp has also been part of a wider nationwide effort to make victims of HIV and AIDS feel more welcome in their communities. When camp was founded 25 years ago, a diagnosis could make victims in the local, rural community outcasts. Today, support is growing and while it is still difficult to talk about, communities come together more and more, like they did for the "Stride and Seek" fundraiser in Brainerd that helps support Camp Benedict.
"Last year at Stride and Seek, the Brainerd area really showed up," Andrews-Mendoza said. "It was amazing."
People, especially in rural communities, can still feel isolated by this disease, and that's still one of the things Camp Benedict wants to help fix.
"It hurts my heart that having a certain status on you changes the way people look at you, but you're still the same person," Wash said. "I like meeting the younger kids. I've been through a lot. Life is not easy, but you make it. You have to have God first and think about it and nothing should make you ashamed of who you are. You should love you."
"In Brainerd, it's a rural community," DeChantal said. "We're still educating. We're still learning. We're still letting people know it's OK to say it out loud. We're all one big world and trying to figure it out."
Camp Benedict, like all other Camp Knutson camps, is free to attendees and paid for through charitable donations and events. Benedictine nuns stationed near the hospital in Brainerd were the camp's first financial sponsors, hence the camp's name.
Among other events, Camp Knutson is supported by funds raised through the Camp Knutson Quilt Auction, this year on Aug. 10, and the Night Under the Stars Gala on July 20.