“The kids are amazed by the squirrels and horses; it’s like they’ve never seen a squirrel before,” says Emily Cheng, the youth and teen director at the Hollywood Wilshire YMCA. “And they take pictures of just trees! Without a single person in the picture!”
Cheng is talking about Camp Whittle, one of the 25 locations of the Metropolitan Los Angeles YMCA. This 125-acre site in the San Bernardino Forest is the perfect setting for youngsters to escape the city while taking part in outdoor activities that build relationships, confidence and self-esteem.
A sign tacked on to a tree is an example of the kind of positive environment fostered at the camp. “Listen when I talk about the things that mean something to me,” it reads.
Bijon Lewis, who has spent two summers at Camp Whittle, is one teenager who attests to the camp’s success at helping young people develop.
The 13-year-old lives in South Los Angeles with his mother and older sister. (A second sister lives away from home.)
His mother, Cecilie Bishop, is relieved that Bijon has the chance to spend part of his summer away from their “gang-infested” neighborhood. “The Y has been a great help with mentoring my kids,” she says. “Otherwise, they might have chosen the wrong path.”
Bishop would like to move her family to a better neighborhood, but, on the wages from her part-time job, that’s not possible. As she puts it, “We’re surviving, but we’re struggling.”
Bijon’s favorite camp activities are banana boat kayaking, canoeing and the overnight hiking trip. “At camp, you don’t hear all the big city noise,” he observes.
Bijon also likes the counselors and appreciates their involvement with the campers as individuals.
“They let you speak your mind,” he says, “but also encourage you to stay on the right path and not get involved in fights or gangs.” For Bijon, the right path will head to USC or UCLA, where he would like to prepare for a career in sports, medicine or politics.
Before college, Bijon plans to volunteer as a Camp Whittle counselor. He wants to practice his leadership skills and mentor younger kids, just as the older counselors helped him.
With $1.6 million raised last year by the Los Angeles Times Summer Camp Campaign approximately 6,500 children will go to camp in Southern California this summer.
The Summer Camp Campaign is part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund, a McCormick Foundation fund, which matches all donations at 50 cents on the dollar.
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