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20 Years of Magic: The Inspiring Story of Camp Arroyo

Meet the Diablo woman who brings joy and friendship to the children who need it most.


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In the summer of 1990, the AIDS epidemic was ravaging the country, with no cure in sight. Ten-year-old Ryan White, who had been ostracized after contracting the virus from a blood transfusion, had passed away in April. Here in the Bay Area, paranoia—and infection rates—were soaring.  

That summer, an East Bay family decided to do what they could to help children hit with this deadly disease.

In August, Elaine and Barry Taylor hosted a fundraising party dubbed Day in the Park in their Lafayette backyard. The grassroots event raised a surprising $56,000—and led to the creation of the Taylor Family Foundation later that year. 

Now living in Diablo, the Taylors have raised more than $15 million for children in need with their Day in the Park fundraisers. Ten years ago, they helped open Camp Arroyo in Livermore—the only permanent camp in Northern California to host programs for children with HIV/AIDS, and other life-threatening ailments. Thanks to the Taylor Family Foundation, these programs are free for every child who comes to camp. 

To recognize these remarkable achievements, Diablo wanted to get the story from Elaine Taylor, the heart and soul of Camp Arroyo. We sat down with her as she was preparing auction items and menu selections for this year’s Day in the Park on August 29.  Here is her story.


| how it began |

When my husband, Barry, and I organized the first Day in the Park, I certainly never dreamed I would help build an incredible place like Camp Arroyo.

In 1990, I was a 37-year-old woman living in Lafayette, with an 18-month-old daughter, and I was terribly concerned about the children who were directly affected by AIDS. I didn’t have a plan; to this day, I have still never written a business plan for the Taylor Family Foundation. Back then, I think I just wanted to sit and rock babies with AIDS all day. I just wanted to do something—anything—to help.

I had been incredibly moved by Elizabeth Glaser’s book, In the Absence of Angels. Elizabeth was married to Paul Michael Glaser of TV’s Starsky and Hutch, and she contracted HIV from a blood transfusion while giving birth to their daughter, Ariel. She didn’t know, of course, and nursed the baby. They were terrified and spent the 1980s living in absolute secrecy, afraid to tell anyone that their daughter had HIV.

Ariel died in 1988, and Elizabeth was determined to make a difference. After that, she was fearless: Elizabeth had no problem going up to Steven Spielberg and asking him for a million dollars for AIDS research. She spoke at the 1992 Democratic National Convention and helped open the national dialogue, before passing away in 1994.

I realized that the Glasers’ situation could be anyone else’s—and they had money. It did not take long to realize that we should raise money for children with HIV/AIDS and their families, who had no support system whatsoever. We created the Taylor Family Foundation at the end of 1990 to make a difference.

 

| funding the cause |

Our first Day in the Park event in 1990 was a backyard fundraiser for the March of Dimes, an organization that Barry and his company had supported for years. Barry grew up very poor and did extremely well in his career, but he has never stopped paying attention to those who are less fortunate. Eighty percent of the people who came to the first Day in the Park were from Barry’s office, TaylorMade Office Systems (I scheduled the event the same weekend as the company picnic to make sure no one would be out of town.) Diablo magazine, Chevron, Nordstrom, and Wells Fargo Bank each filled a table that first year, and have been with us ever since.

We raised $56,000—far more than we expected—and we were so excited. But I was terribly discouraged when I found out that a huge percentage of what we raised would go back to New York to fund administrative costs, and only a fraction would help kids here in Northern California.

So while Barry continued to organize an annual event with the March of Dimes, we realized that pediatric AIDS was a cause that was in desperate need of attention.

When we raised $122,000 at our second Day in the Park in 1991, we instantly became the largest single fundraiser for the cause in Northern California. The money went directly to Children’s Hospital Oakland and UC San Francisco. In the first few years of the Taylor Family Foundation, we were able to support and fund a dietician and psychologist at Children’s Hospital, which were extremely helpful to families in need.

If you saw the hours and energy the doctors and scientists worked in those years, we could not have paid them enough. And their work has been remarkable: Today, there are about 35 kids living with AIDS in Northern California, but in the early ’90s, we had 600 to 700 children with HIV/AIDS.

So many of those children became instant inspirations for our foundation. Some of them are still with us: Sherla (see story below) and Dill and others have survived, and live in a world where AIDS is a chronic illness, but not the death sentence it was when they were young.

But we did pay for a lot of funerals back then. So many funerals. I’ll never forget the first one I went to. All the other kids with AIDS from Children’s Hospital and their brothers, sisters, and parents were there to support the family. It really was amazing because that was the grim reality that they all had to look forward to. Still, that feeling of love and support was overwhelming.

| creating camp arroyo |

In the mid–1990s, I went to visit Camp Sunburst, the only Northern California program for kids with AIDS at the time. It was created by an incredible woman named Geri Brooks, who would pay for these kids to go to camp on her credit card and then spend the rest of the year paying it off.

When I visited the Camp Sunburst program in Alta, it was obvious that the facilities were lacking. They didn’t have bathrooms in the cabins; the medicine that these kids were on made them sick, so they would have to get up in the middle of the night to go find the bathroom in the dark, with a flashlight. The more I saw, the more I thought we might be able to build a better camp for these kids.

Tom TomkinsonI remember the moment that clinched it for me. I went through the kitchen, and there was the cook, stirring a huge pot of Sloppy Joe sauce for lunch. He was smoking a cigarette, and the ash must have been two inches long, just about to fall into the pot. It was at that moment that I said, “OK, we’re building a camp!”

So we looked into building a camp in the area, and the stars aligned. The East Bay Regional Parks District was committed to building an educational facility for school kids to use for science camp: They had a piece of property ready to develop in Livermore. We went from

“OK, we’re building a camp” to opening day on July 4, 2000, in just over four years. Don’t get me wrong: It was a lot of work, and it still is. But so worth it.

I’ll never forget something that happened the first week of camp, in July of 2000. We hadn’t ordered enough trash barrels, and there was this horrible mess I needed to clean up: it had been lasagna night, the night before. You don’t want to know.

So there I was, standing in this horrible mess of garbage and thinking, “I don’t know if I can keep doing this …” Just then, a man drove up with a little girl, and he said, “My niece is coming to camp next week, and she’s really scared. Would it be OK if we just took a look around?” I said, “Of course, let me just get cleaned up, and I’ll take you on a tour.” By the end of that tour, this sweet little girl was so excited to get to come to camp, and she had the most wonderful time that week. I realized, that’s why we’re here, and I can clean up the trash from lasagna night without complaining about it.

I cannot count the number of priceless moments like that I have witnessed at camp: Seeing kids jump into the pool for the first time, watching friendships develop that continue every summer. I just love watching the girls get ready for the prom we put on in the dining hall. They get dressed up in their gowns, put on corsages, and go to the prom that they didn’t get to go to during the school year.

At Camp Arroyo, the kids have first-rate facilities: an incredible dining hall, a clean-water swimming pool with a filtration system that looks like something out of a Jules Verne novel. They eat healthy, delicious food; we use natural, organic foods, much of which comes from our sustainable organic garden and orchard. It’s a beautiful, thriving little farm run by a YMCA official and 12 volunteers from the Tri-Valley.

The kids get to have fun with their friends, away from the stresses of their day-to-day life and doctors’ appointments. And they get to look forward to coming back next year.

It is so important for people reading this to know that camp is free for the kids who come. It has always been free. So parents in the thick of a medical crisis should know that they do have this respite and they will not be financially burdened by it.

In the early years of the foundation, we imagined there would be so many children with AIDS by the time Camp Arroyo opened that we would have to fund programs all summer long. But the amazing advancements in medicine and education during the past decade have reduced the number of children born with AIDS dramatically.

Of course, there are so many other illnesses affecting children; so we decided to offer camps for a range of kids in need. We have programs for kids with skin disease, diabetes, Crohn’s and colitis, sickle cell, hemophilia, bipolar disorder, brain tumors, pre-school burn survivors, autism, and asthma, among others.

| star athletes, rock gods, and a lemonade stand |Cody Pickens

We have been incredibly lucky to have the support of generous donors. Some wish to remain anonymous; others realize that their celebrity can help our cause. [NFL legend] Steve Young has been amazing: He could not be a sweeter, more generous person. Just a few nights ago, he donated 20 tickets for kids to go see Peter Pan in the city. [Singer] k.d. lang helped start a program for kids threatened by gangs. Robin Williams hosted several dinners, which sold for more than $20,000 each. The guests who went called me and said, “It was so much fun. After the restaurant, Robin took us back to his house, and we had cognac and cigars, and he danced on the coffee table!”

[Another Planet Entertainment President] Gregg Perloff convinced Barbra Streisand to make us the beneficiary of some premium tickets. Since then, he’s helped us organize ticket packages for the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, and others. We were the beneficiaries of a huge concert that Gregg put on with Dave Matthews in Golden Gate Park: It raised more than $250,000 in a day and paid for our amphitheater.

Our dear friend [music producer] Merl Saunders Jr. told me he would get a guitar signed by all the members of the Grateful Dead—something that would be very rare because they did not like to do that very often. Merl dropped off the guitar, and just a few days later, I am eating my morning cereal, and the news crawls across the bottom of the screen: “Legendary Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia dies.” I look down, and there is Jerry’s signature on the guitar.

The next year, [Grateful Dead guitarist] Bob Weir came to Day in the Park and walked around, strumming the guitar during the live auction. It sold for $32,000, and the buyer donated it back so it could be sold again.

We’ve used these donations to create a trust to ensure that there will always be funding for camp. People reading this should know that it’s the smaller donations—$20 to $30 contributions and the coins dropped into our jars at Fry’s Electronics—that actually fund the programs all summer.

We have so many heroes who tirelessly volunteer and fundraise, like Emma Garman, an eight-year-old who puts up a lemonade stand with her younger brother, Scottie, in Pleasanton every weekend. To all our supporters: I can’t possibly thank you enough.

Day in the Park always takes place the last Sunday of August, and it has always been our biggest fundraiser. Each of our first 10 years, we raised a bit more than the year before. In 2000, the year we opened camp, we broke a million for the first time. We decided not to have a Day in the Park last year because everywhere I looked, people were hurting financially, and I couldn’t bring myself to ask them to give again. We decided to wait a year and come back strong with this year’s 20th anniversary Day in the Park. If we break a million in 2010, I will be beyond happy.

| the taylor family |

My family has been nothing short of amazing throughout this journey. Barry has been so dependable, so supportive. My son, Tom, was nine when we started, and he got involved right away. He’s been our staff photographer since the beginning. Katie was still a baby at the first Day in the Park; by the time she was five, she begged me to let her sell raffle tickets. I can still picture her at that Day in the Park, wearing an oversized apron and coming up to me with her pockets stuffed with $100 bills.

Tom, now 29, and Katie, 22, gave up every summer of their childhood. We’ve made sure to make the other holidays—spring and winter—really count for family time.

It’s strange to look back at 20 years and see how much we have accomplished, and to think of how far we’ve come. Today, our challenges are greater than ever because our commitment with Camp Arroyo and all of our summer programs is so much larger than it was when we first decided to host a fundraiser in our backyard.

But if I had to do it all over again, I would, in a heartbeat. This is clearly a journey I was supposed to take.


411 - Day in the Park

The 20th anniversary Day in the Park will feature lunch, beer, and wine from top area restaurants. Guests can bid on silent auction items, and after lunch, CBS radio’s Narsai David, ABC-7’s Cheryl Jennings, and PBS Open Road’s Doug McConnell will emcee a live auction of 25 high-end packages.

When: August 29, 11:30 a.m.–5 p.m.
Where: Camp Arroyo, 5535 Arroyo Rd., Livermore
Cost: $175 per person; $2,000 per table of 10, with special wine and dessert.
Info: (925) 455-5118,
ttff.org.


| camper's voice |

Sherla’s Story

Relaxing by the pool at Camp Arroyo on a sizzling Livermore afternoon, Sherla Cannon is a beautiful, willowy young woman who seems wise beyond her 24 years. For the past six summers, she has worked as a counselor in a weeklong program for children with HIV/AIDS. Before that, she was a camper. 

It’s not a stretch to say the camp for children with AIDS saved Cannon’s life. “When I was little, camp was all that I had,” says Cannon, who went every summer from age seven until she became a counselor. “I was able to open up and share my story with kids who could relate to me. I made my first friendships and would look forward to coming back each year. That’s what kept me going.”

Cannon was born HIV-positive, and her mother was addicted to drugs. Her childhood was a terrifying labyrinth of foster homes, sexual abuse, and the ominous ticking clock of a mysterious disease.

“When I started going to school, people really didn’t know what AIDS was,” says Cannon. “I was kicked out of kindergarten when they found out I was positive. The school was worried other kids might get it from me.”

Fortunately, she was able to go to Camp Sunburst. The summer camp for kids with AIDS, which moved to various Northern California locations throughout the 1990s, permanently settled into Camp Arroyo in 2000.

As a counselor, Cannon spends a lot of time listening to the kids and also shares her stories, talking about her dear friends from camp.

“There are so many doctors telling these kids what to do,” she says. “But kids need to hear it from a real person. I talk a lot about my friend Christina, whom I met at camp the first year I came. She was one of my best friends but stopped taking her medicine, and she died from pneumonia in 2005. In order to live long and strong, you need to take the medicine.”

Cannon spends most of the year in Suitland, Maryland, where she works full-time as a nanny.

“I’m still in the process of finding myself,” says Cannon, who has also volunteered as a counselor for a pediatric AIDS program in Cape Town, South Africa. “What I really want to do is travel around the world.”  —P.C.


411 - Camp Arroyo

The Taylor Family Foundation’s Camp Arroyo is Northern California’s only permanent camp facility for children with life-threatening illnesses: More than 2,000 kids attend programs each summer. The campus includes 12 cabins, a medical infirmary, a dining hall and swimming pool, an arts and crafts yurt, bocce courts, a ropes course and climbing wall, and an organic garden. The 138-acre facility in the hills of Livermore also hosts YMCA programs, and more than 5,000 elementary and junior high school students visit during the school year for science camp programs.

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