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A Tent That Includes All : Venice Camp Has Promoted Ethnic Harmony for 25 Years

August 26, 1993|LUCILLE RENWICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BRENTWOOD — Kyle Lewis and Lister Yu have a simple objective when they arrive at the Venice Camp in Brentwood: Hit the ground running and head straight for the jungle gym.

Within minutes, the bright blue and orange contraption of swings, ladders and slides is awash with children like Kyle, 7, of Paramount, and Lister, 7, of Chinatown--bright-eyed, energetic youngsters of all ages and ethnicities from poor neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles County.

To most of the children, the two-week camp is fun in the summer and a chance to escape the boredom of urban life. To counselors and administrators, Venice Camp is a chance for the children to learn to appreciate the differences in others.

"In schools, you can preach to students and try to teach them about people of other races or religions or ethnic groups, but when all they see are people like themselves, it's hard to explain it to them," said Carl Dugas, director of the Venice Camp. "Here, it's set up for them to experience it directly."

The idea for Venice Camp was spawned in 1968 by Alice Drucker, a Van Nuys mother who wanted to expose her two young sons to children of other ethnicities.

Children in the camp range in age from 3 to 16 and come from such diverse neighborhoods as Compton, Gardena, South Los Angeles, Chinatown, East Los Angeles and West Los Angeles. The camp also includes disabled students.

About 130 youths are accepted into each of the camp's four two-week sessions. Students are recommended by counselors and administrators of the camp or by teachers, and must come from families whose incomes are below the federal poverty level.

Although there is an attempt to limit the number of children in each session, no one is ever turned away, meaning that the camp groups have been as large as 170, administrators say. The camp requests a $5 donation per child, but waives the fee for those who cannot afford it.

Some children attend Venice Camp one year and leave. Several others, like Devin Boss, 21, of West Los Angeles, keep returning. Boss, who is now a counselor with the camp, started attending when he was 7.

That summer, he met Alex Nunez of East Los Angeles, and the two became instant friends. Nunez was from the projects. Boss lived in a predominantly white community.

They talked occasionally during the school year, but always stayed together during camp. As teen-agers, Nunez and Boss would see each other more frequently outside of camp. This fall, they will be roommates in Valencia while Boss attends the California Institute of the Arts and Nunez, 22, attends Glendale Junior College.

"Venice Camp was the only place I could interact with and learn about different people," Boss said. "If this wasn't here, I would never have met Alex, and that would've been a real loss for me."

The camp's $100,000 budget is funded through various government and corporate grants and donations. The Los Angeles Unified School District provides transportation for the children, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture donates food for breakfasts, snacks and lunches.

Each 6 1/2-hour day starts with hugs from counselors for each boy and girl as they emerge from the school buses that pick them up from their homes. Then there's the daily "sing."

Bunched together on wooden benches, counselors and older campers hold the smaller children. As their tiny hands and arms form sign language symbols, they sing or mouth the words to "Good Morning to You."

On this particular day, the sing is followed by a farewell for Drucker, who is retiring after 25 years of overseeing the program. There are songs and gifts and friendship pins for her, as well as a hug from almost every child.

It was after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 that Drucker got the idea for the camp. Her sons, then 10 and 12, told her some of the derogatory things their friends had said about blacks. In their conversation, Drucker realized her sons knew no children outside their circle of friends in the Valley, all of whom were white.

After a phone call to one of her sons' teachers, Drucker started a small program to bring different children together. She gathered 30 youngsters from the Aliso Village and William Mead projects in East Los Angeles and from the Westside.

"At the time, it seemed like a good thing to do," Drucker said. "I didn't go in with the idea that this would be something so big; it just seemed good."

For the next 13 years, the group spent summers at the pavilion in Venice Beach--hence the name "Venice Camp." In 1978, the camp accepted disabled children. Three years later, the camp moved to Crestwood Hills Park in Brentwood.

"To be in an environment that allowed handicapped children to participate in everything that normal children were doing was incredible," said Melanie Otey, whose daughter, Lily Hixon, is disabled and has attended the camp for four years.

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