The Nickerson Gardens housing project loomed in the background as 25 children filed onto a yellow school bus that by day's end would transform Los Angeles' labyrinth of streets and freeways into an adventure map and take them worlds away from their graffiti-marred neighborhoods.
On the typically busy day in the winter session of L.A. City Camp, the bus full of 10- to 12-year-olds wove its way from Watts to a health club in Manhattan Beach and to a state park near Malibu.
"A lot of the kids before had never seen the ocean, and they only live a few miles away," said Watts resident Anthony Morland, a parent volunteer and one of six adult chaperons on the trip. His son, Anthony Jr., 12, was among two dozen youngsters who attended last August's first session of the free camp.
The twice-a-year, five-day program was organized shortly after last spring's riots by Wendy Walsh, a 28-year-old co-anchor and reporter for HBO's "World Entertainment Report." After watching the city go up in flames, Walsh said, she decided that the rebuilding process should include exposing low-income, inner-city children to nature, art, health and fitness, career options--and some plain old fun.
"We're just trying to show them there's more to their world, say, than just what's in Nickerson Gardens," said Walsh, a native of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, who moved to Los Angeles four years ago.
During the nonprofit camp's winter session, which ends Sunday, the children have visited art museums, gone inner-tube tobogganing in the snow near Big Bear, and heard talks on staying in school and setting career goals.
"A lot of these kids are afraid to go out into their neighborhoods because of gang activity," said Morland, who served the campers milk and cereal Wednesday at their morning meeting site at 112th Street School in Watts. A bus picks them up and drops them off there at the end of each day.
The city of Los Angeles sponsors low-cost live-in camps for boys and girls in Griffith Park. But Walsh said she thought there was a need for a camp targeting 10- to 12-year-olds from riot-torn areas because they are entering their impressionable teen-age years.
Most of the participants are African-Americans from South Los Angeles, but the camp also draws Latino youngsters from East L.A. and Asian-Americans from Koreatown. Campers are recruited through city schools.
Last August's session was funded with donations from friends, Walsh said. But two weeks ago, Cities in Schools--a national nonprofit organization dedicated to persuading youngsters to complete their educations--gave the camp a $15,000 grant for use over three years.
Walsh said it costs about $3,000 to stage each weeklong session. The bus and driver are donated by a Glendale firm, Brock Bus Lines, so the grant funds go to provide two meals a day for the children and activity fees. The next camp is scheduled for August.
In the future, Walsh said, she would like to offer the day camp four times a year. She would also like to form a permanent mentor program to keep in touch with the campers as they grow older.
"We realize it's not a good idea to just drop in kids' lives, show them a magical world and just give them gifts," she said.
The rigorous camp day started at the Sports Connection in Manhattan Beach, where the youths, clad mostly in sneakers, jeans and sweat pants, listened to a brief health talk then hit the Lifecyles, played basketball and did bench presses on the latest in workout equipment, normally the playthings of the beachside community's yuppie set.
Johnny Bailey, wearing a Chicago Bulls sweat shirt, pulled 50 pounds, then 100, encouraged by Olympic triple-jump gold medalist Al Joyner, who also came to last year's camp.
Johnny and the other campers spent the afternoon on a two-hour nature walk in Topanga State Park near Malibu. While trekking through the hills and canyons, they ate nuts, berries and grains, leaped over empty stream beds, passed by coyote droppings and played with tarantulas, bugs, a small garter snake and two brown-and-white domesticated rats--safe ones, in a cage.
"Come here, little mice. Hi, little mice. Hi, little mice," cooed Rayona Roberts, who said she used to have two hamsters until her mother forgot and left them out in the sun too long.
Rajon Pearson's mother, Marilyn Bradford, got up about 5 a.m. to drive from San Pedro to the camp's meeting site. Rajon, 12, said the camp is "really helping us stay out of trouble and (off) the streets."
Last August, when he went to the first camp, he marveled at the size of the homes they saw in Laguna Beach, telling his mother, "Oooooo, mama, look at these mansions."
Bradford, who also has three daughters, said she told her son: "You have to work for what you want. And in order for you to work for what you want, you have to get down in your books and be something."
"When I was a kid my mama put me in everything she could, modeling and charm school," she recalled. "It helped me to see my goals better and what I wanted to do," though friends wanted her to ditch school and smoke cigarettes.
During a question-and-answer session at the health club, Joyner also urged the children to remain unperturbed in pursuit of their ambitions.
Joyner told how he avoided the pool hall, liquor store and drugs while growing up in East St. Louis by finding something positive that interested him: swimming. Only later did he discover his ability at track and field.
"If you have a dream," the 32-year-old athlete said, "don't let anyone hinder you. . . . Dream big and dream every day."