Philip Lilienthal Wins 2013 Sargent Shriver Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service

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Philip Lilienthal Wins 2013 Sargent Shriver Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service

By Kelly Reid on Tuesday, June 4th, 2013



Phil Lilienthal, founder of Global Camps Africa, with campers. (credit: Global Camps Africa)

Serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer provides an experience like no other. Working with groups in need around the world is a calling that many feel, and — via the service opportunities available at the Peace Corps — a calling many get to answer. Through exposure to various cultures, living conditions, and socio-economic groups, Volunteers gain a unique perspective on some of the most serious social issues that plague the communities the Peace Corps seeks to aid, often breeding a sense of social entrepreneurship within volunteers that extends far beyond their official time of service.

Named to recognize the first Peace Corps Director, Sargent Shriver, whose efforts resulted in outstanding contributions to the founding and development of the Peace Corps, the National Peace Corps Association annually awards the Sargent Shriver Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service to a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who continues to make a sustained and distinguished contribution, whether that be to humanitarian causes at home, abroad, or through innovative social entrepreneurial efforts to bring about significant, long term-change. Each year, the recipient of the this prestigious award is honored for their devotion to bettering of the lives of those not only around them locally or nationally, but across the globe.

And the Award this year goes to — Philip Lilienthal (Ethiopia 1965-67), founder and president of Global Camps Africa, a nonprofit whose mission is to empower children for an AIDS-free tomorrow. These children are affected by many kinds of violence and have been affected by the HIV crisis in Soweto Township. Phil’s 8-day camps and the follow-up biweekly sessions provide a way for the children to see hope for their future. The Sargent Shriver Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service will be presented at NPCA’s Peace Corps Connect – Boston June 28-29 in Boston, MA. 

As Phil sees it, “It is still amazing to me, even after seeing it repeated at each and every camp, that the children and youth who attend camp are so ready for the knowledge we provide them and that they can shift the way they look at life after just 8 days at camp. It doesn’t mean that their future is assured–just that they have discovered a path to get out of their circumstances, they know what that path is, and they can achieve it.”

So where did the idea for the Global Camp come from?

45 years ago, Phil Lilienthal was a young Peace Corps Volunteer who believed deeply in the Peace Corps goals and the value of service. After graduating from law school, Phil went to Ethiopia. One of his assignments was to organize a summer camp. Phil drew on his extensive experience as a camper and then counselor in his family-owned camp in Maine.

After his Peace Corps years as a Volunteer and staff, he directed Camp Winnebago in the summers and practiced law the rest of the year. After retirement from his law practice in Reston, Virginia, Phil visited several counties in Africa to find a local partner organization that shared his vision of helping children. He found one in South Africa and in 2004 opened Camp Sizanani which is the Zulu word for “helping one another”. To date 5,000 children have attended the camp. The staff members are trained locals and many of the volunteers come from Northern Virginia. Phil described life at the camp:

Arriving on the first day of camp, the campers look like children without a care in the world. As the life skills classes move through the various phases of the curriculum, the stories come out of abuse, beatings, rape, incest, and deprivation. Many have to be educated as to what “abuse” is. They don’t know it as anything but the norm, as the condition we describe as “abusive” is one that they have been living with all their lives, including physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Educating children that this is not the norm can change not only the children at camp, but those siblings and friends they interact with after camp.

The children continue to meet at biweekly Saturday Youth Club meetings to reinforce their learning and draw in their family and friends.

Phil reflects:

“The epiphany that came to me during the January camp was that the strength we are giving the campers is in the form of transformation: we are not changing the circumstances of their lives; we are, rather, giving them the tools to see their lives as possibilities for excellence despite their current circumstances.”

Truly embodying the spirit of the Sargent Shriver Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service, Phil continues to live and practice what he believes was important about his Peace Corps experience – giving his service to others, a real outreach to humanity.