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A Priceless Gift of Carefree Memories

Camp Contributors to The Times fund hope to give area kids the summer experiences they've cherished. But donations are lagging this year.

July 27, 1999|JOSE CARDENAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Last year Harry Mass looked back and realized there was a memory he especially cherished: summer camp in Minnesota when he was 8 years old.

The memories came back as he read an article about the Times Camp Fund. He decided to become a contributor to help others have the same experience.

In 1926, his father paid $8 for a week's worth of memories that have lasted Mass a lifetime. Mass wrote a check for $800 to give back a hundredfold so some other kids could experience summer camp too.

"Now that I'm old I see that experience left a big impression," says Mass, 81, a Tarzana resident who is retired from a real estate career.

Indeed, the Times Camp Fund--which provides camping experiences to disadvantaged youngsters from throughout Southern California--relies on contributions from community members like Mass as well as Times employees.

Since the fund kicked off its 45th year in May, contributions had been matching last year's pattern. Then, in the last few weeks, donations dropped dramatically.

"We haven't been able to answer why," says Raul Bustillos, the fund's executive director.

Total contributions to date are ahead of last year: $709,000 compared with $655,000. But the last four weeks, compared with last year, are a different story.

For instance, the most drastic example was the week of June 28 when $28,000 was raised. Last year $109,000 was donated during the same period. If the trend continues through Labor Day, Bustillos says, the season's total will be far less than last year's $1,095,600.

The fund, created in 1954, has sent more than 300,000 underprivileged children to summer camps around Southern California. Donations are spent fully on the children because The Times pays for the funds' administration, and Bank of America provides accounting services.

Some contributors give because they think camping provides an opportunity much needed by some children.

"You can only understand if you live in an environment that doesn't have anything to offer you," says Trikkia Keel, a mid-Wilshire attorney and former public defender who grew up in Compton.

During her childhood summers, she remembers, she sat on her porch day after day waiting for the school year to start. Now she gives so others can have what she didn't have. "They have a better chance when they get to see another side," she says.

Others give so less fortunate kids can experience the summer camp experience they remember.

"There have been times when I have really been down, and I looked back on that," says Buddy Farmer, a Playa del Rey writer and producer who attended camp in his native Alabama.

As a young boy, Farmer's divorced father did not want to send him to summer camp. But his uncle paid, and Farmer went off with his two cousins.

It was a Catholic camp, and Farmer was Baptist. His cousins told him "just do what we do." At one point, he recalls, he tried going to Holy Communion, but his cousins said: "You can't do that, man, you're not Catholic."

The priest gently told him he could take part in everything--except Holy Communion--and two weeks later he was named outstanding camper.

Mass recalls a Kiwanis camp near Stillwater, Minn. His cabin counselor was Jimmy Solomon. He remembers him as a good role model--"just like his biblical name"--who had the patience of Job looking after the mischievous 8-year-olds.

One night the campers were led to a haunted house down the road to investigate a "mystery." But when they spotted "ghosts," they turned and ran. Of course, the ghosts turned out to be their dressed-up counselors. Mass still smiles about it.

"The wonder of childhood comes only once," he says.

A Time to Grow

* Spending time at camp could help Joaquin, 9, develop socially. E4

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