Camp Program Helps to Fulfill Young Girl's Dream


(Saturday, July 19, 2008 5:23 AM EDT)

Great Falls native Kim Jappell may only be 21, but she already is making a difference in the lives of HIV-infected youth, as the vice president of the local non-profit organization Really Awesome Times (RAT).

Jappell has a very personal connection to RAT, which provides free recreational and support programs to HIV-infected youth and their families, because it was her sister's dying wish that an organization like this exist.

Jappell's sister, Bernadette (Bernie), was diagnosed with HIV in 1993 at age nine and began treatment at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda. The disease was traced back to a blood transfusion she received when she was two weeks old.

As a way to have some fun and forget the pain of the disease, Bernie and her family attended a weekend-long camp organized by staff at the NIH.

The weekend, which was full of canoeing, fishing, arts and crafts and singing around the campfire, was a hit with Bernie.

“It's a place to relax and be away from the HIV world,” Jappell said. “It's a small sigh of relief between hectic times, hardship, fear and the financial costs that come with HIV. It's a time to let loose.”

Before Bernie died in 1998, she asked that the camp always continue, so when funding for the weekend getaways dried up in 2005, Bernie's mother, Alice, jumped in with a core group of volunteers and started Really Awesome Times.

(The acronym RAT was chosen to commemorate Bernie, who started her own fictional company, “RAT Inc.,” through which she sold drawings and rat clay figurines to raise money for the Pediatric AIDS Foundation.)

Kim Jappell started as a RAT board member, eventually took on the role of vice president and took over as camp director at the camp held this spring.

She has continued a camp tradition her mother started which was to light the campfire with cooled ashes from the previous session to show the connectedness of each camp weekend.

The ashes “represent all the members of the campfire there, friends and memories that were made, and any member that could not be there that weekend,” Jappell said.

Currently, the RAT holds two weekend-long camps a year (one in late spring and one in early fall) with about 30 to 40 families attending each one. Jappell hopes to expand RAT's offerings to include programs specifically for adolescents.

Jappell recently graduated from Shippensburg University with a degree in social work and is busy as an intern at NIH for the summer, but she still finds the time to host fund-raisers for RAT (each weekend camp costs about $25,000 to run).

And even though she'll be heading into the workforce soon, she will still be committed to organization.

“I'm really excited to work for a while, maybe in a counselor position,” she said. “And maybe someday RAT will be my [full-time] job.”

For more information on Really Awesome Times, see the Web site at

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