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Giving Teens a Sense of Wonder


When Venetia Flores Buhler was 14, relatives took her camping in Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks. As a lifelong Los Angeles resident, she found a world she had seen only in photos and on television, where she became in tune with herself amid the forest calm.

Now 31, Buhler lives in Northern California's Klamath National Forest--in tiny Somes Bar (population 150)--and for the past two summers has been offering Los Angeles teen-agers the opportunity to experience the sense of wonder and inspiration she felt that first time in the wilderness.

For 10 days in July, Buhler supervises a camping trip in Klamath National Forest for 20 to 25 teen-agers from Para Los Ninos, a center for homeless and impoverished families in downtown Los Angeles. The groups, which also include Para Los Ninos counselors and Somes Bar teen-agers, learn wilderness skills, go on fishing, river-rafting and gold-mining trips and have joined U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service expeditions to survey spotted owls and black bears.

Buhler and her late first husband moved to Somes Bar from Echo Park in 1985 and later lived in New York. She returned to Somes Bar after her husband's death in 1990, and she works seasonally for the Forest Service surveying prospective logging sites for wildlife and endangered species.

The idea for the camping trip came in 1991 during a visit from Buhler's mother, Celia Flores, and two of Buhler's sisters. Flores is a longtime volunteer worker who instilled the same spirit in her family. Her daughter Vanessa England is co-chairman of the community advisory board of Para Los Ninos, where daughter Valerie Flores also volunteers.

Buhler agreed with her family that it would be nice for some of the Para Los Ninos kids to meet young Somes Bar residents.

"It was a pipe dream, but it struck me deep in my heart that it was attainable, against all odds," says Buhler, who is remarried to wood craftsman Rex Buhler and is expecting their first child.

She spoke with the district ranger and merchants in Somes Bar and the neighboring town of 430, Orleans. Residents rounded up sleeping bags, tents, camping facilities and a mobile kitchen; merchants donated the cost of various expeditions. Bake sales and a musical benefit helped to raise funds for food, one of the biggest expenses at about $1,500. In L.A., the Para Los Ninos teens held rummage sales and dances to pay for the gas for two vans for the trip north.

Buhler decided to do the camp for 13- to 18-year-olds. "These kids are at a point in their lives where they're making decisions. So if they could see something that provided a ray of hope to their lives, a different environment or just the idea of doing something like working in wood or with dried flowers or pottery, I wanted to do it.

"We instill the idea of teamwork in a lot of the activities," Buhler says. "The first few days, the kids were very introverted, not willing to make eye contact. That comes out of necessity, for survival in Los Angeles. But then that wall was broken down and they were children again, smiling and spontaneous."

Buhler keeps in touch with the campers and their counselors, who report success among the teens who have camped; some are working and others have applied to local and Northern California colleges.

The next camping trip is tentatively set for July 12 through 21. Buhler admits to being "nervous," however. She is a victim of a temporary Forest Service seasonal hiring freeze, and Para Los Ninos has suffered from funding cutbacks.

"We may have to scale it down, maybe to 10 kids," she says. "But I say we'll do it. This camp serves a purpose for the kids. What's most difficult is just taking that first step out of their environment. But if they do it, and keep putting one foot in front of the other, everything follows after that."

This column tells the stories of the unsung heroes of Southern California, people of all ages and vocations and avocations, whose dedication as volunteers or on the job makes life better for the people they encounter. The column is published every other Monday. Reader suggestions are welcome and may be sent to Local Hero Editor, View, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.

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