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Year-Round Pupils Get Change of Pace at Year-Round Camp

January 03, 1988|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

The camp, at the Circle X Ranch in Malibu, 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, " explained 10-year-old David Felix, a fifth-grader at Logan Street Elementary School in Los Angeles. "We slept in a tepee one night," another camper said. "It was freezing."

According to Van Hoven, the Woodcraft Rangers started the camp because there were few recreational programs for the many year-round students on vacation in the non-summer months. The Los Angeles Unified School District has 95 year-round schools, enrolling 137,000 students. Most of these schools are in poor Latino and black neighborhoods and have adopted year-round schedules because of crowding.

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, the most popular activity was shooting BB guns under a counselor's watchful eye. 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 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.

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 aerosol 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," said Michael Robago, 9, of Victoria Avenue School. Perhaps as a result, camp cuisine was highly valued. "They always ask for seconds," said Valerie Johnson, the Mountain Lions' counselor.

Repetitive Diet

The camp's food budget was augmented with government surplus food, including a 40-pound chunk of Cheddar cheese. Cook Pat Randolph chipped away at the huge orange block-- producing cheese sandwiches, cheese toast, macaroni and cheese, enchiladas and lasagna with cheese, au gratin potatoes, cheese nachos and cheese pie. Government-issue applesauce was also often on the table.

The children's favorite meal, however, was spaghetti (without Cheddar cheese).

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