LAKE ISABELLA — To find the poor and needy, the underprivileged children, whose bodies are undernourished, whose thoughts are clouded by fear, whose hearts are heavy from lack of love and understanding . . . to find and rebuild them into healthier and happier generations of Americans."
--Robert M. Pyles, Founder, R.M. Pyles Boys Camp
For almost 50 years, the underprivileged teenage boys from Southern California who have come to summer camp in this mountain basin have slept under star-sprinkled heavens featuring the Milky Way sprawled across the night sky.
By now more than 20,000 boys have spent free two-week sessions at Pyles Camp and heard the camp's trademark slogans of "setting goals" and "personal responsibility," among the values the camp's founder believed could help boys lift themselves out of poverty. Anyone, he believed, could reach for those stars that shine so brightly here.
"I thought it was going to be fun, but it was better," said Noel Rodriguez, a quiet 13-year-old from Pacoima who recently spent a session there along with 70 other teens from the San Fernando Valley and East and South Los Angeles.
"They teach you how to believe in yourself and that you have choices," Noel said. "There's more to life than gangs."
Founded in 1949 by Pyles, a Huntington Beach oil businessman, Pyles Camp is a nonprofit, volunteer organization--still largely sponsored by the oil industry--based in Valencia but with its campgrounds 200 miles north in Sequoia National Forest.
Pyles, who had his ashes scattered around the camp when he died in 1969, was inspired by his own modest boyhood to build the camp.
Pyles' father left his family when Pyles was 3. At 11, Pyles moved with his mother and younger siblings to Bakersfield from Texas, after the family store was destroyed in a fire.
He went to work as a "mop boy" in the Kern County oil fields, cleaning up gooey spills, to help support his family. In time he rose through the ranks at the camp near the Forks of the Kern River, an area where he frequently camped.
Still a remote area 45 minutes away from the nearest gas station, the peaceful basin is surrounded by towering granite peaks and lush green meadows where only the whisper of the wind blowing through the ponderosa and sugar pine trees breaks the evening silence.
Today, campers typically come from poor neighborhoods, where drugs and gangs are as much a part of their lives as single parents and public assistance. They cope with dangers far greater than those faced by the boys in Pyles' day, said Roman "Bravo" Gutierrez, 37, the camp director who himself was a camper in 1973. (And to this day, like other camp graduates, he carries the nickname he got in camp.)
"At that time you had a fistfight to settle things," said Eddie Calderon, 63, an oil worker raised in Watts, who helped select Los Angeles boys to be campers from 1953 to 1993. "Now they need an Uzi to level everything."
Like Calderon, school and law enforcement officials and community members also select 12- to 14-year-olds whom they believe are essentially "fence-sitters" who may be rescued from drugs and gangs with a positive wilderness experience.
The counselors and staff, most of whom were campers too, live or have lived in the same neighborhoods as the teens they now counsel and can talk from personal experience about defying gangs and drugs to become college students or professionals.
"Camp is like a time capsule," said David "Derby" Dayan, the camp's assistant director. "We take them out of the city and for two weeks bring them into a perfect environment where they can think about who they really are."
The recent two-week visit by Noel's group started off by shaking off the last bit of the city: a standard bag search to confiscate guns or other weapons.
As with the 500 other boys who come from Orange, Ventura, Kern and Tulare counties every summer, no weapons were found. Cigarettes and lighters are usually the questionable items confiscated, Gutierrez said.
At first the Los Angeles campers were particularly distrustful of one another, and a few scuffles broke out on the buses as they headed up the mountain. Two boys were eventually sent home for fighting.
"I thought it was going to be like a regular camp, where you just have fun," said Edwin Larin, a 14-year-old from Van Nuys. "But then they start telling you how you have to respect other people and clean your cabin before you can play."
Atypical day at the camp begins at 7, with a military-style cabin inspection long before archery lessons or dips in the creek.
The boys--separated into nine groups of about nine each--haul the metal bunks out of their cabins to sweep, mop and dust everything, even the cabin's rafters. Other chores before breakfast include hosing down the showers, scrubbing the toilets and raking pine needles. The boys wait outside their cabin during inspection, peering in through the windows while Dayan critiques their work.