Low-income kids get a chance to explore nature in sleep-away science camp at Newport’s Back Bay


Over 10 weeks, nine groups of fifth-graders are sleeping, eating and learning at a four-day, three-night Newport Bay science camp as part of a program called Fostering interest in Nature.

The FiiN program, in its freshman year, focuses on bringing students from Title I schools to Newport Beach’s Back Bay, where they can learn about the estuary and have “an outdoor experience they will never forget.”

Title I schools have large concentrations of students from low-income households and receive supplemental federal funds to help meet educational goals.

FiiN focuses primarily on educating students about watersheds, marine ecology and the history of the bay, but students also can go on hikes and a boat tour in addition to kayaking and exploring tide pools. They camp outdoors at Camp James and are fed by Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort, both of which partner with FiiN.

The program is currently on its fourth group of students. It expects to have hosted about 350 students by the end of its first year.

City staff said the program is open to any Title I school in Orange County, but students attending this year are from the Santa Ana and Newport-Mesa unified school districts.

“When I grew up, it was part of the curriculum that you can go out and you do a nature camp. But it was all done by the individual,” said Heather Cieslak, director of operations for the Newport Bay Conservancy.

“My family had to fundraise or pay for it, and here, it’s an opportunity for these students if maybe their parents can’t afford it or are disconnected, that they can then come for this four-day, three-night program and get to experience it.”

FiiN is funded by the city of Newport Beach and the Lido House hotel as part of negotiations for the latter’s lease of city land after the California Coastal Commission said the city needed to find lower-cost visitor accommodations before it would approve the project.

Mario Cuevas, a fifth-grade teacher at Lowell Elementary School in Santa Ana, said his students were excited to be at the camp. The opportunity “plants a seed for future biologists, doctors, engineers and puts a whole different perspective on science,” he said.

“[The students’] eyes lit up when they saw the estuary,” Cuevas said. “They couldn’t believe that they were going to be sleeping in a tent. And the relationships that they’re going to build here could last for a lifetime.”

Arlette Velasquez, 10, said she was nervous and excited to go to the camp. She said she wasn’t sure whether she’d like the people or meet new people. But “it’s been pretty fun,” she said.

Arlette said she had never gone camping before or been on a boat.

Valeria Pedraza, 11, whose father, Ernesto, is a teacher at Lowell and also attended the camp, said she was “really excited” to go.

“I’ve gone camping and I really like it,” she said.

FiiN is set to run for 10-week “seasons” every year for the next decade. City staff said it’s too early to tell what would happen after that.

The hope is to expand the program to serve more students or extend the camp’s duration, according to Jim Campbell, Newport Beach deputy director of community development.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity for [the conservancy],” Cieslak said. “We’ve been around for 50 years, advocating for protection, conservation and education of open spaces. To be able to have this opportunity with the city to educate fifth-graders that just live 20 minutes down the road is really important to us.”