Bears are hard to come by in the San Fernando Valley, 14-year-old Shannon Truque can tell you.
That's just one way that Shannon's week last summer in the San Bernardino National Forest at UCLA's UniCamp was such a revelation.
Shannon spends a lot of time caring for her 3-year-old sister at home in Van Nuys while their mom works as a waitress. Her father was killed when she was younger.
At camp, Shannon could leave adult troubles and responsibilities near sea level, while she had adventures at about 6,000 feet between Redlands and Big Bear.
"You're so used to living in, like, the Valley, where everything's the same," Shannon said. "Out there it's so much different." Including the bear she saw.
The 10 acres near Barton Flats along the Santa Ana River provide a refuge for low-income city kids to explore nature, make friends and look up to their counselors -- all UCLA student volunteers.
"Even though everybody there had just met, we were all like a loving family, all of us," Shannon said.
Like many campers, Shannon had never spent a week in the outdoors.
The program, established in 1934, is a UCLA tradition, with more than 300 students participating this year, Executive Director Wally Wirick said.
The open-air cabins and 50-foot climbing tower at UniCamp offer "a touch of independence" for kids, Wirick said. "You get the opportunity to do a little self-examination: 'Where am I headed; what's going to become of me?' "
UniCampers such as Shannon "learn some things that they won't learn in" greater Los Angeles, Wirick said. "What really happens is the synergy between learning from and with a UCLA student . . . where you're not going to be interrupted by a cellphone or a text message."
UniCamp can't afford to fill all of its cabins, and will have to stretch resources to accommodate about 925 kids.
Last year's expenses were estimated at about $575 per camper; families are asked to contribute about $75 toward camp expenses.
Shannon, a high school freshman, is planning to enroll at UCLA -- so she can work at UniCamp too.
Thanks to $1.7 million raised last year by the Los Angeles Times Summer Camp Campaign, about 8,000 Southern California kids can afford to attend camp this summer.
The annual Summer Camp Campaign is part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund, a fund of the McCormick Tribune Foundation.
The McCormick Tribune Foundation matches all donations at 50 cents on every dollar.
Unless requested otherwise, the Los Angeles Times Family Fund makes every effort to acknowledge donations of $100 or more received by Sept. 1 in the newspaper. Your gift is tax deductible as permitted by law. Addresses will not be released or published.
For more information call (800) LA TIMES ext. 75771 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Mail donations (do not send cash) to:
Summer Camp Campaign
Los Angeles, CA 90074-6984
Or donate now at: latimes.com/summercamp