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Camping It Up : Hundreds flock to the youth program at USC. They also get educational counseling, museum field trips and a math and science program--all for free.


WHEN DON MUEPO WAS 15, HE listened to his friends talk about playing football, basketball and other sports at a free summer sports camp at USC. So the next summer, Muepo made sure that he was in on the fun. It was a move that helped change his life.

"Everything about it is so positive," said Muepo, who has not missed the National Youth Sports Program in 16 years. "It becomes a major impact in your life."

Once a participant, Muepo is now a counselor for the camp, which was developed in 1968 by the federal government and the NCAA for inner-city youths. "It's a program that is just hard to pull yourself away from," he said.

USC's is considered one of the best of the program's more than 175 camps across the nation. This summer, USC's intramural department is celebrating its 25th year with the program.

"USC's was one of the pilot programs that the NCAA modeled (this program) after," said Jennifer Siu, USC's sports camp activity director. "Every year, USC is rated among the top programs in the nation."

Parker Jenkins, the liaison officer between USC and its surrounding community, said that it has become an annual event: Hundreds of neighborhood 10- to 16-year-olds run around the campus in colored-coded T-shirts, participating in all types of activities.

Aside from the major sports, the youths are instructed in swimming, martial arts, tennis and gymnastics.

"The only negative about the program is that not enough kids get a chance to be involved," said Muepo, 30, a marketing representative and assistant basketball coach at Dorsey High School. "They miss out on an opportunity to establish relationships in a family-type atmosphere."

The program, which has 400 to 500 children each year, operates under a first-come, first-served registration basis. It runs from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, with each participant responsible for his own transportation. Every child must pass a physical examination to be covered by health and accident insurance provided by the NCAA.

Brenda Metcalf, whose son Hodges, 13, is attending his fourth camp, was skeptical of the program at first. "I thought that since it was free, the camp wasn't going to offer much," Metcalf said. "But that is not the case. We've sent him to camps that we paid for and this one offers far more."

What sets the program apart from other sports camps is the additional educational counseling, field trips to museums and beaches, nature hikes and a math and science program.

"The camp is very educational and Hodges is a good example," said Metcalf, who lives just west of Exposition Park. "He tells me about everything that he learns every day and last year he was in the math-science program and learned how to build a motor and dissect a lamb heart by himself."

The program also gives courses on nutrition, career development and sex education, and deals with drug and alcohol awareness and gang-prevention programs.

Courtney Johnson, 12, who also lives just west of Exposition Park has been attending the camps for three years and likes the additional programs. "We learn about family planning, and I think that it's really good," said Johnson, who also has a brother and a sister who attend he camps. "It teaches you ahead of time so when you are a teen-ager, you won't end up having a baby and stuff like that."

One of the camp's concerns in recent years has been working with children who may be caught up in gangs. It is not uncommon for a youth to enter the camp with a tough attitude but leave six weeks later a changed person.

"To us, sports are secondary," said Kenya Smith, a 20-year-old counselor with the program six years. "We try to show them that if they are not a good person, it doesn't matter."

"They come here with problems and we try to counsel them the best we can," said Smith, who is majoring in developmental psychology at Northern Illinois on a football scholarship. "All of our kids are special and we never look upon them as wild or anything else. I know that I spend a lot of my time just having talking sessions with them about life."

Many who have been associated with the program credit its success to the commitment given by USC's intramural office, headed by Don Ludwig and David Koch. They say that the support is why USC's camp has always been ranked one of the nation's top five.

Maybe four-year camper Tyree Williams said it best:

"Being involved with the camp has helped me and it has made me want to be more helpful to other people," said the 13-year-old, who lives in West Adams. "Instead of being at home hanging out on the corner doing nothing during the summer, you have an opportunity to do something positive."

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