Year-Round Pupils Get Change of Pace at Year-Round Camp

Times Staff Writer

The campers sat in their lodge in the Santa Monica Mountains, belting out: "Nobody likes me! Everybody hates me! I'm gonna go eat worms!"

The 47 youngsters could have been summer campers anywhere. But they were actually December campers, taking part in a program that offers off-season camping to students in year-round schools.

At a time when summer recreation places are padlocked and empty, Camp MeKahGa bustles from reveille to bedtime. Besides singing camp songs, the youngsters hike in the mountains, study the flora and fauna, weave "friendship" bracelets, play basketball and watch the stars at night. As they lie in their bunks after lights out, they hear the unfamiliar cries of great horned owls and even an occasional mountain lion.

Opened in 1986, Camp MeKahGa is the first camp created especially for the 157,500 students in 121 year-round schools in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

Nonprofit Administration

The camp, at the Circle X Ranch in Malibu, is run by the Woodcraft Rangers, a nonprofit service organization similar to the Boy Scouts. This year, Camp MeKahGa was open between September and early December. Eventually, the camp hopes to have a spring session as well as one in the fall, said James Van Hoven, executive director of the Woodcraft Rangers.

Camp MeKahGa is much like other camps, only chillier. "In the morning we put our clothes and shoes on fast, " explained 10-year-old David Felix, a fifth-grader at Logan Street Elementary School in Los Angeles. "We slept in a tepee one night," another camper said. "It was freezing."

According to Van Hoven, the Woodcraft Rangers started the camp because there were few recreational programs for the many year-round students on vacation in the non-summer months. The Los Angeles Unified School District has 95 year-round schools, enrolling 137,000 students. Most of these schools are in poor Latino and black neighborhoods and have adopted year-round schedules because of crowding.

Real Need for Programs

"We know the community is divided over this issue," Van Hoven said of year-round schools. "We are not taking a position either way. But we know there are already children out there in that position. Many of them are economically disadvantaged, and they need programs like this."

Camp MeKahGa is open to children age 7 to 12 during their school vacations. A total of 655 students from 35 schools in Los Angeles and Ventura counties took part this fall. Almost 80% of the campers were Latino, Van Hoven said.

Among the youngsters at the camp's last session in December, the most popular activity was shooting BB guns under a counselor's watchful eye. The girls liked shooting as much as the boys (who outnumbered them 3 to 1 throughout the season) and loved archery as well. Gloria Sule, 9, who goes to Park Avenue Elementary School in Cudahy, failed to shoot a bull's-eye when it was her turn with the bow. "I hit a tree, though!" she said triumphantly.

A high point of the week was a dance, complete with campers lip-syncing the song "La Bamba." "It was fun," said one of the girls, who collectively called themselves the Crickets (boys preferred names such as Mountain Lions and Scorpions). "We threw popcorn at each other," another girl said.

No camper liked cleaning the bathrooms or the silent siesta after lunch, described by one counselor as the best hour of the day.

For many of the children, camp meant being away from home for the first time. "I miss my parents," said Brian Jones, 11, of Park Avenue School. "I miss my VCR," said Jeffrey Perry, 10, who goes to Victoria Avenue Elementary School in South Gate. "I miss my bratty little sister," said Adriana Sampos, 11, a schoolmate.

Occasionally, a camper was frightened by the sights and sounds of the wilderness. One little girl from Compton was scared of the large moths that sometimes flew at night. The staff could usually quell such fears by spraying the children's bunks with an empty aerosol can labeled "Monster Spray." To document that all local demons had been exorcised, the counselor put a sticker on the door that read: "This room protected by Monster Spray."

The children ate almost as lustily as they sang. The campers were told beforehand to leave cameras, radios and other things of value at home. They were also told not to bring food--"no Twinkies or nothing," said Michael Robago, 9, of Victoria Avenue School. Perhaps as a result, camp cuisine was highly valued. "They always ask for seconds," said Valerie Johnson, the Mountain Lions' counselor.

Repetitive Diet

The camp's food budget was augmented with government surplus food, including a 40-pound chunk of Cheddar cheese. Cook Pat Randolph chipped away at the huge orange block-- producing cheese sandwiches, cheese toast, macaroni and cheese, enchiladas and lasagna with cheese, au gratin potatoes, cheese nachos and cheese pie. Government-issue applesauce was also often on the table.

The children's favorite meal, however, was spaghetti (without Cheddar cheese).

With grant money from the James Irvine Foundation, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and other agencies, the Woodcraft Rangers gave low-cost or no-cost camperships based on family income.

Almost half of the children paid nothing. Most paid $20. Only one camper paid the full $120 cost of the five-day, four-night program, Van Hoven said.

Running an off-season camp is different from running a summer camp, the director added. The pool on the property is unheated, so it was off-limits to the youngsters after the last torrid days of September. The staff also kept a dozen sleeping bags on hand for campers who arrived unprepared for the chilly mountain nights.

Van Hoven said he was fortunate to find experienced staffers who were free to work in the fall, since camp counselors are traditionally vacationing college students. Several had just graduated and liked the idea of working at the off-season camp before finding permanent jobs.

Because the fall is a time when few parents are thinking about camp, Van Hoven said the Woodcraft Rangers had to recruit potential campers by contacting principals and sending representatives into the schools.

Heliotrope Avenue Elementary School in Maywood sent 75 children to the camp. Kevin Baker, coordinator of special programs at Heliotrope, said campers returning to school talked excitedly about their week in the mountains. Camp officials met with parents and answered their questions in Spanish before each session.

Baker said the only tense moment came Oct. 1.

"The day of the earthquake, I had the parents of the 50 children who were up there at the (school) gate," Baker said. "I was able to get through to the camp and assure them that the children were OK."

Circle X Ranch covers 1,655 acres formerly owned by the Boy Scouts, including the highest point in the Santa Monica Mountains. It is now owned by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, a coalition of state and local agencies that run parks and recreation areas. Deer, gray foxes, golden eagles and rattlesnakes inhabit the property.

Asked if they had seen animals on the site, most of the children said they had. What animals? "Squirrels!" they answered.

New Sights

The campers went on hikes with naturalist Peg Boerger. At night, she would ask them to lie on their backs and observe the stars. "They don't get to see stars in Los Angeles because there are too many city lights," said Boerger, who taught the children the Greek and Indian myths of the skies as well as simple astronomy.

The ranch is mostly chaparral, a dry, shrubby area characterized by plant life that conserves water, Boerger explained. She tells the children that many of the plants have such conservation-oriented adaptations as small leaves and waxy leaf surfaces. The oils that minimize water loss in many plants often have strong scents, which explains why black sage and other local plants have pungent odors.

Boerger also tells the children how the Gabrieleno Indians, who once lived there, made use of the native plants. One of her nature-walk groups harvested acorns from a live oak, just as the Gabrielenos did. They prepared the acorns, which are bitter unless repeatedly washed, and ate them as part of their breakfast. No one clamored for seconds.

Boerger said her goal as a naturalist is to get the children "to accept a certain responsibility for the environment, but to really enjoy it, too."

The first hurdle, she said, is to get them to respect the many, often modest, forms of life they encounter. "At first," she said, "they want to kill everything they see. If they see a snake, they want to throw rocks at it. If they see a bug, they want to step on it."

"The biggest difference between the girls and the boys is bugs," Boerger observed. "The boys aren't afraid to go digging in the dirt to find bugs. The girls just aren't interested in that."

According to Heliotrope Avenue School's Kevin Baker, the best evidence of the camp's success is the enthusiasm with which alumni recommend it to their schoolmates. Baker said several students were crestfallen to learn that they wouldn't be going to camp during each of their four monthlong vacations throughout the year.

Baker and other educators say many more off-season recreational programs are needed for the growing number of children in year-round schools.

"I think it is critical that opportunities for camp experiences and all the other experiences that children have during the summer months--June, July and August--be available throughout the year," said Norman Brekke, superintendent for the Oxnard Elementary School District.

Campers From Oxnard

He pointed out that his city has had year-round schools for 11 years and that the Oxnard Parks and Recreation Department now offers most recreational activities year-round. As a result, Brekke said, "Youngsters can take tennis lessons in March or September."

Brekke said his district plans to send students to the Woodcraft Rangers' camp next fall. He said students have already taken advantage of the year-round fine arts programs offered by Laurel Springs Educational Center in Santa Barbara, a camp operated by Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden.

"We're so glad they are here," Sonia Thompson said of the off-season campers who come to the Circle X Ranch and marvel at its moths and mountains and squirrels. Thompson, who manages the property, works for both the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. "This is their park," she said. "On their own, they probably wouldn't be able to get out here and use it."

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