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SCHOOL'S OUT! : Nights Are Frigid and the Pool Unusable, but for City Children, Year-Round Camp in Santa Monicas Is a Happy Change of Pace

December 27, 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.

Nonprofit Administration

Situated 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.

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."

According to Van Hoven, 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.

Fills a Real Need

"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-synching the song "La Bamba." "It was fun," said one of the girls, who collectively called themselves the Crickets (boys preferred names such as the Mountain Lions and the 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," said Adriana Sampos, 11, a schoolmate.

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." To document that all local demons had been exorcised, the counselor put a sticker on the door that read: "This room protected by Monster Spray."

The children ate almost as lustily as they sang. The campers were told beforehand to leave cameras, radios and other things of value at home. They were also told not to bring food--"no Twinkies or nothing," as Michael Robago, 9, of Victoria Avenue School said. Perhaps as a result, camp cuisine was highly valued. "They always ask for seconds," said Valerie Johnson, the Mountain Lions' counselor.

Repetitive Diet

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