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Camp Mud : Young Tom Sawyers Get Down and Dirty for Summer Fun


LA CANADA FLINTRIDGE — Most youngsters heading to camp this summer are planning on the usual activities offered at such places. You know, arts and crafts, soccer, swimming, tennis, softball.

Not so the kids at Tom Sawyer Camp, who are looking forward to a summer that will include some of that stuff, but also plenty of mudding and a bit of larceny--all in the name of fun, of course.

Since the mid-1920s, Tom Sawyer campers have spent a good portion of their days playing in the mud and devising schemes that bring the venerable, larcenous schoolyard game Steal the Flag to new heights.

There is no record of anyone turning to a life of crime as a result of a summer of practicing thievery and subterfuge at this day camp, which is based at a county-owned urban wilderness park on the border between La Canada Flintridge and Pasadena.

And, if you judge a good time by how dirty one gets, the kids are having a blast.

But chances are good that the parents, who must dole out a hefty sum for all of this childhood madness, are not exactly clear on what goes on at the camp at Oak Grove Park in the Arroyo Seco near Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Devil's Gate Reservoir.

"This is not a camp that has crafts . . . . (Instead) the kids enjoy being themselves," said Susan Futterman, trying to explain the reason her daughter, Lauren Siegel, 13, has attended Tom Sawyer for almost a decade.

"What do the kids do ?" Futterman said with a laugh. "We never have a clue!"

The children will tell you they spend a lot of time at two of the planned activities, riding horses and taking swimming lessons at nearby La Canada High School.

The older ones, 11 to 14, who take part in the camp's Outpost program, rave about the rock climbing, wind surfing and rope climbing classes.

But for the most part, the campers talk about just being kids.

"You can come home covered head-to-toe in mud," says Rachel Polver, who has spent 13 of her 16 summers at Tom Sawyer. "I just really like the freedom."

Such words are heartening to camp director Sally Horner, who bought the privately owned enterprise with her husband, Mike, in 1973. They use the park under a contract with the county.

"My philosophy," she said, "is kids go to school 10 months of the year. They need a break. They go horseback riding. They catch frogs. They use their imaginations. We give a child a chance to be a dreamer."

That philosophy does not come cheaply. A five-day, six-week session costs $1,320, or about $44 a day. A full five-day, 10-week season runs $2,100, or about $42 a day.

Day camp sessions at the Crescenta Canada Family YMCA, in contrast, cost about $20 a day.

"I'm so biased that for me (the tuition) is not a consideration," said Duncan Baird, a Pasadena Fire Department battalion chief, who attended Tom Sawyer Camp as a youngster and now sends his son, Wyatt. "When I write the check, I bite my lip and then I smile and it's done."

Adds Futterman, who works as a censor at ABC's office of broadcast standards and practices:

"Life is short. You need a lot of different experiences. If you start looking at the price tag, you're going to deprive your child of special experiences."

Those experiences have not varied much since Tom Sawyer Camp was founded in 1926 in Laguna Beach, Horner said. The move to Oak Grove Park came in 1944.

The three Horner children became Tom Sawyer campers in the early 1970s. Sally Horner said she and her husband were especially pleased with the program's effect on their 6-year-old, Tom.

"He was the kind of kid, if you asked him 'what did you do today?' he'd say, 'nothing,' " Sally Horner said of her oldest child. "When he came back from Tom Sawyer, he'd say 'we did this and this,' we'd feed him dinner and he'd fall asleep! We decided the camp worked."

When the camp was for sale in 1973, the Horners bought it and have since made running it and another child-care enterprise a year-round family affair. In addition to operating the camp, the Horners supervise an after-school program at a Pasadena church.

Tom Horner, now 31, works full time heading the Outpost program. His sister, Sarah, 28, also works full time at the camp, while sister Ginny, 30, teaches during the school year and comes aboard for the summer.

Because the camp is private and operates for profit, Sally Horner says, needy children have not been included.

"We don't have money coming in from other sources and we can't do fund-raisers (as nonprofit organizations do)," she said, adding that the camp is exploring the possibility of accepting donations through the American Camping Assn. to give Tom Sawyer the resources to accept some needy youngsters.

Some campers have very famous parents, although the Horners prefer to keep it all low key. And most of the kids could care less. What they do care about is getting dirty . . . realllllly dirty.

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