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Summer Camp Campaign: Jennifer is close to her mom but learns independence in Big Bear

There isn’t an inch of space between 11-year-old Jennifer Suarez and her mother, Jenny, as they cuddle on the couch at the Woodcraft Ranger Afterschool Club of San Miguel Elementary School.

Sitting hip to hip, their hands clasp naturally at times; other times Jennifer will cling to her mother’s arm. They are always bantering, with warm smiles and laughter.

Although proud of the strong mother-and-daughter tie, Mrs. Suarez worries that Jennifer might be too attached to her. So she decided to send both Jennifer and her 8-year-old sister, Solangie, to the Woodcraft Rangers summer camp at Big Bear last summer.

“I wanted her to be strong and independent,” the elder Suarez said through a translator. “And when she came back from camp, she was definitely more independent.”

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Jennifer paused with a cheeky smile when asked if she missed her mother during the weeklong camp, and both she and her mother laughed. She said she didn’t miss home as much because her mother sent her letters, and it felt good to be someplace different and experience something new for once.

Her favorite thing about the camp was the dining experience. “They give good food,” she said. “Like enchiladas. And pancakes in the morning!”

She also enjoyed the scavenger hunt, the water balloon fights and the mud fights. This summer, she looks forward to a “very dangerous” walk in the mountains only open to campers 11 and older.

Amber Walters, business development director of Woodcraft Rangers, the nonprofit organization that provides the after-school program and camp opportunities in which Jennifer participates, said that summer camp is a place for kids to develop essential life skills.

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“Summer camp really helps develop the whole child,” Walters said. “It’s kind of the magic of camping. They’re learning life skills of the real world away from parents, but in a safe environment.”

She also noted that although kids tend to remember only the fun things, some of these activities are specially designed to disguise academic lessons. For example, campers participate in a scavenger hunt in which they learn to work as a team to solve problems on a list that tests their literacy and mathematical skills.

That’s a piece of cake for Jennifer, who loves math. She dreams of going to either of the best universities she knows: Stanford or Harvard. But would she be able to leave home for a college all the way across the country?

“Yeah!” Jennifer exclaimed. “Of course!”

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Through the generosity of Times readers, along with a match by the McCormick Foundation, more than $1.6 million was granted last year by the Los Angeles Times Summer Camp Campaign.

The Summer Camp Campaign, part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund, a McCormick Foundation Fund, supports programs that provide thousands of Southern California’s at-risk children ages 7-17 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 now at latimes.com/donate or by calling (800) 518-3975. All gifts will receive a written acknowledgement.

sophia.lee@latimes.com

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