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Money Camp Teaches That Gold Rules

Times Staff Writer

Even with an array of summer camps competing for parents’ attention, the one Elisabeth Donati is offering stands out.

“When your friends ask to borrow money, what do you say?” Donati asks a roomful of kids ages 10 to 17 on a recent day. “You say, ‘Will you sign a promissory note?’ We’ll teach you that.”

Clearly, this is not the sing-around-the-campfire camp of your youth. Nor even the more modern version, where, for a price, elementary schoolkids shoot buckets with NBA megastars.

On the premise that adolescents know shockingly little about building a financial portfolio, Donati’s day camp combines how-to sessions on the stock market with money-themed games and activities. Donati and her business partner, Larry Stein, call it the Money Camp for Kids.

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Specialty camps, of course, are all the rage once schools let out for summer. From now through September, children will be learning how to perfect a karate kick, paint a landscape or swim with dolphins.

Money Camp is just the latest twist and one that is long overdue, Donati says.

Rich people have always taught their children how to manage money, she says. What’s wrong with providing the same advantage to the less wealthy?

“Most parents don’t have the information to teach them,” said Donati, 45, a former fitness instructor who staged her first camp last summer in Santa Barbara. “They are too busy trying to make a living and stay out of debt themselves.”

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The weeklong camps, advertised in newspapers and through fliers handed out at schools, are held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and cost either $129 or $150, depending on location. Camps are scheduled in Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties over the next two months. The Web site is www.themoneycamp.com.

Donati and Stein plan to expand the idea to the Los Angeles region, possibly by next summer, and hope eventually to get schools to include the basics of finance in classroom lessons. They will host their first teacher-training program in Los Angeles this fall.

“We teach our kids the macro-economic stuff, but most of them don’t even know how to balance a checkbook,” said Stein, who taught personal money management at Santa Barbara City College. “We are not teaching our kids basic life skills.”

Donati said she was unaware of any other money camps for kids in the area. However, similar summer workshops hosted by a for-profit Atlanta-based company have been held in Atlanta, Houston and the San Francisco Bay area.

Inside a packed classroom at a Boys & Girls Club in Ventura last week, 25 campers were learning plenty. Slouched around tables, they plowed through an inch-thick binder titled “Financial Playbook.”

Crammed with child-friendly exercises in budgeting, investments and savings, the curriculum was created by Donati on a home computer. Kids complete written exercises as they work through the manual with Donati and Stein.

Donati starts the week by exploring her charges’ beliefs about money and those who have lots of it.

When 15-year-old Michael Arevalo tells Donati that “money is the root of all evil,” she quickly corrects him.

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“That’s not the real saying. The real saying is, ‘Lack of money is the root of all evil,’ ” Donati said. “Because when you don’t have money, bad things happen.”

(Actually, according to Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, both are in literature -- the Bible offering the first viewpoint and Mark Twain the second.)

Donati tries to dispel the stereotype of the rich as greedy and selfish. Greedy people are greedy, she told the class. And rich people are rich, but not necessarily greedy, she said.

To back up her point, she told the kids that in Santa Barbara County, there are 1,200 nonprofit groups, many of which survive on contributions from wealthy benefactors.

But Nick Stevenson, 13, wasn’t buying the argument. “Because they get breaks on taxes, right?” the boy said.

After a lunch break, the children practiced “affirmations.” These are statements, spoken aloud, that Donati said would help prepare their young minds for the wealth ahead.

“I make money every day,” said Austin Winfield, 12.

Others chimed in: “I am wealthy.” “I am rich and generous.” “I am financially independent.”

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Donati also asked the kids to visualize waking up and having the whole day ahead, free of work, because “your money is working for you.”

“When you really believe something is going to happen, guess what? It happens,” she told the campers.

During a break, several of the kids said they liked the workshop because they are learning new things. They didn’t seem to mind too much that the sun was shining and a baseball field was just steps away, unused.

“It’s kind of a different camp,” said Austin, who has done junior lifeguards, skating camp and surf lessons in previous summers. “My mom said I didn’t have to go after the first day if I didn’t want to. But I do. I think it will help me a lot.”

Briana Robinson, 16, said her parents encouraged her to take the sessions, and she’s glad she did. “They said they’d wished they learned the same things when they were young,” Briana said.

But not everyone was thrilled. Alex Stevenson, 16, insisted the camp was more his parents’ idea than his own. “I don’t care, because I’m grounded for two weeks anyway,” said the Newbury Park teenager, hair flopping over his eyes.

Judy Powell believes so strongly in the topic that she volunteered as a camp aide. As a former principal at a private Camarillo school, Powell said she insisted that her students receive instruction in real-life finance.

“Teaching about money is like teaching sex,” said Powell, who is now retired. “People still believe it’s the parents’ job. But this is valuable stuff. If I had been in AT&T; and Colgate when I was 15 years old -- think about it.”

The camp’s founders say that many people consider money a taboo topic, in part because how we spend it says something about who we are.

Donati and Stein take pains to sprinkle philanthropic messages throughout the lessons. But then there’s that chapter that comes mid-week: “Taxes and Inflation: Wealth’s Enemy.”

The camp’s leaders say they are not trying to build a new generation of tax dodgers. One of the exercises the kids participate in is listing all the things for which taxes are necessary, Donati said.

But “you have to learn to take advantage of the tax system,” she said. “We need them to understand how taxes work and the reality of their paycheck.”

One assumes Donati practices what she preaches, so how wealthy is she? “I went from living month to month, to having quite a bit put away,” she said.

The week ends with a field trip to a stockbroker’s office, a bank, a realty office and a large hotel, followed by a pizza party. Donati said she hopes kids will go away with a “mental movie” about what they want to do in their life and how to get there.

“This will change a zillion times between now and then,” she said. “But it’s important to be thinking about it.”


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