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Cool Capers Keep Kiddy Campers Happy at Circle X

December 24, 1987|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

The campers sat in their lodge in the Santa Monica Mountains belting out "Nobody likes me! Everybody hates me! I'm gonna' go eat worms!"

The 47 youngsters could have been summer campers anywhere. But they were actually December campers, taking part in a program that offers off-season camping to students in year-round schools.

At a time when summer recreation places are padlocked and empty, Camp MeKahGa bustles from reveille to bedtime. Besides singing camp songs, the youngsters hike in the mountains, study the flora and fauna, weave "friendship" bracelets, play basketball and watch the stars at night. As they lie in their bunks after lights out, they hear the unfamiliar cries of great horned owls and even an occasional mountain lion.

Opened in 1986, Camp MeKahGa is the first camp created especially for the 157,500 students in 121 year-round schools in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

At the Circle X Ranch in Malibu, the camp is run by the Woodcraft Rangers, a nonprofit service organization similar to the Boy Scouts. This year, Camp MeKahGa was open between September and early December. Eventually, the camp hopes to have a spring session as well as one in the fall, said James Van Hoven, executive director of the Woodcraft Rangers.

Year-round camp would be particularly welcomed by administrators of year-round schools.

"I think it is critical that opportunities for camp experiences and all the other experiences that children have during the summer months--June, July and August--be available throughout the year," said Norman Brekke, superintendent for the Oxnard Elementary School District.

He pointed out that the city has had year-round schools for 11 years and that the Oxnard Parks and Recreation Department offers most recreational activities year-round. As a result, Brekke said, "Youngsters can take tennis lessons in March or September."

Brekke said that his district plans to send students to the Woodcraft Rangers' camp next fall. He said that students have already taken advantage of the year-round fine arts programs offered by Laurel Springs Educational Center in Santa Barbara, a camp operated by Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden.

Camp MeKahGa is much like other camps, only chillier. "In the morning we put our clothes and shoes on fast," 10-year-old David Felix, a fifth-grader at Logan Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, explained.

"We slept in a tepee one night," another camper said. "It was freezing."

Van Hoven said the Woodcraft Rangers started the camp because the organization saw that there were few recreational programs for the large number of year-round students who are on vacation in the non-summer months.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, there are 95 year-round schools, enrolling about 137,000 students. Most of the schools have become year-round because of crowding and are situated in poor, Latino and black neighborhoods where crowding is most severe.

Real Need for Programs

"We know the community is divided over this issue," Van Hoven said of year-round schools. "We are not taking a position either way. But we know there are already children out there in that position. Many of them are economically disadvantaged, and they need programs like this."

Camp MeKahGa is open to children age 7 to 12 during their school vacations. A total of 655 students from 35 schools in Los Angeles and Ventura counties took part this fall. Almost 80% of the campers were Latino, Van Hoven said.

Among the youngsters at the camp's last session in December, shooting BB guns, under a counselor's watchful eye, was the most popular activity. The girls liked shooting as much as the boys (who outnumbered them 3 to 1 throughout the season) and loved archery, as well.

Gloria Sule, 9, who goes to the Park Avenue Elementary School in Cudahy, failed to shoot a bull's-eye when it was her turn with the bow. "I hit a tree, though!" she said triumphantly.

A high point of the week was a dance, complete with campers lip-syncing the song "La Bamba."

"It was fun," said one of the girls, who collectively called themselves the Crickets (boys preferred names such as Mountain Lions and Scorpions). "We threw popcorn at each other," another girl said.

Chores Only Tolerated

No camper liked cleaning the bathrooms or the silent siesta after lunch, described by one counselor as the best hour of the day.

For many of the children, camp meant being away from home for the first time. "I miss my parents," said Brian Jones, 11, of Park Avenue School.

"I miss my VCR," said Jeffrey Perry, 10, who goes to Victoria Avenue Elementary School in South Gate.

"I miss my bratty little sister," schoolmate Adriana Sampos, 11, said.

Occasionally, a camper was frightened by the sights and sounds of the wilderness. One little girl from Compton was scared of the large moths that sometimes flew at night. The staff could usually quell such fears by spraying the children's bunks with an empty spray can labeled "Monster Spray."

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