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Entertainment & Arts

Camp Mariastella, building girls’ confidence for 75 years

Despite all the discussion about female leadership and the professional success of women after the publication of Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book, “Lean In,” the director of the girls camp at Camp Mariastella says female-focused summer programs remain rare.

“We’re one of the few girls camps left,” said Jennifer Gaeta, director of the Wrightwood program. “And there’s a lot of emphasis on how female learning is enhanced when girls are alone together without the competition of males in their immediate vicinity for a little bit of time. There’s something to be said about the female environment that can release and unleash some real potential.”

Camp Mariastella, run by the Sisters of Social Service, has offered the girls camp for 75 years. Girls 7 to 15 from the Los Angeles area spend a week in the San Gabriel Mountains with the aim of gaining independence, confidence and inner strength.

The program offers five sessions each summer, granting “camperships” to many who can’t afford the full fee, Gaeta said. Most of the campers come from low- to middle-income families. Traveling from the city to the campgrounds gives them a sense of independence, Gaeta said of those used to only the most urban environments.

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“At nighttime I see these lovely little girls, walking around with their flashlights as if they were the most comfortable in the world in the outdoors,” Gaeta said. “That just doesn’t happen at home.”

Activities including hiking, archery, swimming, crafts and a low ropes course are meant to give campers a sense of strength as well as an appreciation for nature. One recent week, the camp theme was strong women in history, and the girls performed skits about the lives of Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou and others.

“We believe it’s extremely important to help [campers] understand their limitations and how those can be turned into success,” Gaeta said.

Campers often stretch across generations, Gaeta said, as former campers become counselors and later send their own daughters to Camp Mariastella.

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Kristina Thomas, 14, of Los Angeles has attended the last six years. She said her mom attended the camp and worked as a counselor.

“I really think the camp embraces that not only do girls have to be girlie girls, but they can be adventurous too,” Kristina said, adding that her favorite activity is playing on the volleyball courts. She went to two sessions this summer, and she hopes to become a counselor next year.

“It’s just like my home away from home,” she said. “It broadens my view of other people, and I get to know more people and make new friends.”

The Summer Camp Campaign is part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund, a McCormick Foundation Fund. The campaign 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 phone at (800) 518-3975. All gifts will receive a written acknowledgment.


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