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Closing the summer learning gap at UCLA Unicamp

UCLA Unicamp
Campers climb a structure at UCLA Unicamp in July. The camp offers a variety of physical, academic and social activities.
(Tyler Hersko / Los Angeles Times)

Ninth-grader Sophia Rodas is an accomplished archer and climber. She also enjoys the outdoors. So this summer, Sophia took time to  explore nature and bond with children her own age.

This year marked Sophia’s fourth summer at the week-long UCLA Unicamp, one of several camps sponsored by the Los Angeles Times Family Fund. Initially withdrawn and nervous about attending camp, Sophia quickly made friends and greatly improved her self-esteem.

“I used to be mean to myself,” Sophia said. “Camp has shown me that I can be myself and there are different people that will like you and treat you how you’re supposed to be treated. This is a place with so many things to do and it’s nonstop fun.”

The summer camp, which began operating in 1934 and is located at Camp River Glen in the San Bernardino National Forest, features a variety of traditional camp activities ranging from archery and sailing to fishing and hiking. Campers, ranging from ages 10 through 17, also participate in a number of educational and team-building activities designed to foster growth while offering a safe environment.

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Socialization is an important factor in the week-long program, which is full of activities and traditions intended to allow campers to think creatively and express themselves. For example, campers and staffers alike refer to one another by their self-created “camp names.” Singing and dancing are popular activities, while academic subjects are taught via interacting with nature, such as by measuring the massive tree trunks located throughout the camp.

Though Sophia, who goes by “Chipmunk” at camp, had mixed feelings about school, she enjoyed learning at camp.

“I like school normally but there are negatives and positives,” Sophia said. “But at camp everything is just fun. I never tried geometry before but it’s easy and fun the way they taught it here.”

Camp director Wally “Pops” Wirick noted that the children attending the summer program typically lack the resources or support to excel in school or even travel beyond their neighborhoods. UCLA Unicamp offers its campers an opportunity to get ahead in academics and experience new things, according to Wirick.

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“The kids we have here stay in their community, sometimes they can’t even go to the park,” Wirick said. “They’re losing ground over the summer but here they’re catching up or even surpassing other children. It’s a cornucopia of activities they don’t get in the city.”

Leadership programs are emphasized for older and repeat campers, and many of the organization’s college-aged staffers are camp veterans. The camp’s roughly 500 staffers are entirely UCLA student volunteers or prior campers and are required to attend numerous training sessions and each raise $500 to help keep the camp running. The large number of volunteers, spread out over multiple week-long sessions, allows each camper to form a personal relationship with the camp’s staffers.

For seventh-grade camper Blaze “Titan” Ramirez, UCLA Unicamp is a sort of second home he looks forward to visiting each summer.

“I cried when I left last year,” Blaze said. ““There are chores here … it’s like at home but better.”

The Summer Camp Campaign, part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund, a McCormick Foundation Fund, raises contributions to support programs that provide thousands of Southern California’s at-risk children ages 7 to 17 with enriching, educational and fun camp experiences. Donations are tax-deductible as permitted by law and matched at 50 cents on the dollar. Donor information is not traded or published without permission. Donate online at latimes.com/donate or by calling (800) 518-3975. All gifts will receive a written acknowledgment.

tyler.hersko@latimes.com

@TylerHersko


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