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SANTA ANA : Club a Respite for Young Cambodians

The sun was beginning to set along the shore of Newport Beach, but 10-year-old Sophin Pruong wasn’t yet ready to call it a day.

The feisty fifth-grader from Santa Ana was determined to finish the mini-swimming pool she had begun to dig about 10 feet from the water.

“I like the beach,” she said, as she continued to dig vigorously. “Mostly, I like the sand.”

Sophin was one of eight members of the Cambodian Camp Fire Club roasting hot dogs, building castles and enjoying their trip to the beach Tuesday. The club gives the children, most of whom live on crime-plagued Minnie Street in Santa Ana, a respite from the neighborhood and exposes them to new experiences.

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The club was started last August as a way of introducing the Camp Fire organization to the Cambodian community and came about through a program at Cambodian Family Inc., a nonprofit center in Santa Ana set up by Cambodian refugees as a support network. The center provides a room for the club’s weekly meetings and helps pay for camping trips and other activities.

“These children live in a neighborhood with crime, prostitution and gang activity,” said Irene Minton, program director at Cambodian Family. “The children don’t have structure in their lives, and their parents don’t know how to build up positive resistance.”

While the girls, who range in age from 7 to 12, meet weekly to play and to learn self-reliance, they especially enjoy the outdoor trips, organizers say. Last month, troop leader Colleen Hinker took the group to O’Neill Regional Park for a weekend camping trip.

“It was the first time any of them had been camping,” she said. “They had a great time. We spotted a rattlesnake on the trip, which I don’t think any of them will ever forget.”

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Camp Fire Executive Director Carol Geisbauer said she hopes this pilot program, which will continue next year, will encourage more Cambodian children and their parents to get involved in Camp Fire, which became co-ed in the mid-1970s. There are 7,500 members in Orange County.

“The traditional youth service organizations have not been too successful in reaching the minority community or the recent refugee community because the traditional youth club is not part of their culture,” Geisbauer said.

So far, the girls in the Cambodian Camp Fire Club have blended well with Hinker’s other troops, and even performed the traditional Cambodian flower dance at Camp Fire’s 80th birthday celebration in March.

“I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Cambodians,” said Hinker, who befriended several Cambodians in the 1960s while attending Cal State Long Beach.

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“We kept in touch for many years by letter but the letters stopped coming in the middle of the Vietnam War,” Hinker said. “I believe that they are probably dead.”

And so, the Cambodian Camp Fire Club is Hinker’s way of paying tribute to her friends.

“This program is so important because it exposes the kids to a lot of experiences that they wouldn’t have otherwise,” said Hinker, who has been a troop leader for 10 years. “It enlarges their world a little.”


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