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Phil Lilienthal receives Sargent Shriver Award

Phil Lilienthal with campers

Phil Lilienthal with campers

Ethiopia and Eritrea Returned Peace Corps Volunteers and The Herald are pleased to celebrate one of our own as the recipient of the 2013 Sargent Shriver Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service: Phil Lilienthal (Addis Ababa, 1965–67). Lilienthal is the founder and president of Global Camps Africa , an organization that strives to change the lives of South Africa’s vulnerable children and youth by providing HIV/AIDS prevention education and training through high-impact residential and day camp experiences.

The award, named to recognize the first Peace Corps Director, Sargent Shriver, is bestowed annually by the National Peace Corps Association to a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who continues to make a substantial and distinguished contribution to society. Lilienthal joins a host of distinguished humanitarians, including the late Senator Paul Tsongas (Ghion 62–64), to receive the Shriver Award. Tsongas was among five recipients in 1986, the inaugural year of the award. The award was presented to Lilienthal at the NPCA’s Peace Corps Connect—Boston held June 28–29, 2013.

As a native of New York, Lilienthal spent much of his youth at his father’s camp, Camp Winnebago, in Fayette, Maine, both as a camper and later as a counselor. Upon graduation from law school at the University of Virginia, he and his wife, Lynn, were selected to join the Peace Corps in Ethiopia where he worked in Addis Ababa with various ministries within the Ethiopian government on legal projects. Seble Desta, granddaughter of Emperor Haile Selassie, expressed interest in setting up a residential camp for Ethiopian youth. Not surprisingly, Lilienthal’s experience with camps caught the attention of John Coyne (Addis Ababa 62–64; PC/Ethiopia staff 65–67) who was serving as the Associate Director of Peace Corps in Ethiopia. Coyne mentioned Seble’s interest to Lilienthal and asked him if he was interested in taking on the project. In the two years that Lilienthal oversaw the project, he masterminded the formation and operation of the camp, which included arranging the use of land from a member of the royal family, locating equipment and supplies, acquiring arts and craft supplies, and arranging for medical assistance. A significant achievement was melding together youth from different tribal and ethnic backgrounds into groups that were cohesive and worked well together. In the two years that Lilienthal supervised Camp Langano, there were four two-week long camps serving 285 youth. Camp Langano remained in existence until 1974 when the Derg came into power and the Emperor was overthrown.

Following a successful career as a lawyer and business owner, and having taken over the ownership of the family-owned Camp Winnebago, Phil felt drawn back to those camp experiences he had fostered as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia and his vision to help children in Africa in a way that he knew best. However, unlike Camp Langano, which was fashioned heavily on an American model, he wanted these camps to be truly African. To do this, he had to find the right local partner, one that shared his vision and one that would be self-sufficient and sustainable. After visiting a number of African countries, he found a most suitable match in South Africa, and in 2004 Camp Sizanani, appropriately named after a Zulu word “helping one another,” was born.

Camp Sizanani is located in a rural area north of Johannesburg. It is a camp like no other, catering to the needs of children from the toughest parts of South Africa. Some have experienced unspeakable horrors. Many of the children have tested positive for HIV, a disease that is prevalent in South Africa. The eight-day camp sets about to empower the children and provide them with skills to make a difference in their lives and the lives of those whom they encounter. The discussion of sexuality and HIV are taboo subjects in South Africa, as in many parts of the world. The camps provide the campers with knowledge and the skills to confront the disease in order to better manage their own lives once they leave the camps.

Importantly, the experience does not stop there. The children are encouraged to join one of the five clubs established by Global Camps Africa that meet twice a month. In these clubs — in effect day camps — the children have a safe place to gather, take enhanced life skills courses, and continue the dialogue with their camp counselors.

The results have been remarkable: more than 5,200 children have attended the camps since Camp Sizanani opened in 2004. Participants of the camps have been able to stay out of trouble in greater numbers, have delayed or had fewer pregnancies, avoided joining gangs, and learned they have choices and opportunities. Many of the participants later return to the camps as counselors. Nine South African counselors are in the U.S. this summer as camp counselors in U.S. camps, widening their experiences and enhancing their skills.

Lilienthal has fond memories of his experiences in Ethiopia and has travelled back twice since he was a Volunteer. He is encouraged by recent Peace Corps Volunteer experiences with Camp GLOW (See Paul Voigt’s article in The Herald about Camp Glow.) Lilienthal was also a major contributor to the recent Peace Corps manual: Youth Camps Manual: GLOW and other Leadership Camps published in January 2013.

In reflecting on the Sargent Shriver award, Lilienthal states: “This project would not have come into being without my Peace Corps Ethiopia experience. I believe that the greatest praise that I can receive is when my family recognizes the work that I have accomplished and acknowledges that achievement. Receiving this award from an organization that has been such an integral part of my life is as significant to me as receiving recognition from my family and closest friends.”

Congratulations, Phil, on an honor well deserved from all of us who served with you in Ethiopia in time or in spirit.

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