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Camp So Moved Him, It Became His Career

May 29, 2000|JOSE CARDENAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Only the wind blowing through the pines disturbs the lazy afternoon at All Nations Camp in late May.

In just a few days, however, there will be other sounds: kids' voices singing at the campfire, their laughter during skits, and whispers in the night as they hike to the northern edge of the mountain to watch the distant city lights of the Antelope Valley.

About 60% of the campers who come to All Nations are 7- to 12-year-olds in the foster care system, and many of the rest are kids from low-income families from around Southern California. For most, this camp is their first experience with the outdoors.

Carlos Munoz, 40, camp director since 1991, was once one of those kids. As an 8-year-old from the City Terrace section of Los Angeles, he got a different perspective on life when he spent a week here.

"At that age, it just showed me that there was something else other than East L.A.," said Munoz, who lives with his wife, Renae, son Marcos, 15, and daughter Emily, 10, at the camp about 15 miles west of Wrightwood. "I'm not saying I would have turned out any different, but it changed my life as far as my outlook."

All Nations is just one of the camps in the region that is host to children sponsored by the Los Angeles Times Summer Camp Fund. In its 46th year, the fund's annual campaign begins today and runs through Labor Day. Through donations from Times readers and employees, the fund has raised more than $22 million over the years and helped send more than 35,000 underprivileged children to camp.

At All Nations this summer, like every summer, the children will probably get a glimpse of the neighborhood bear that wanders down to the camp some mornings to look for food in the trash bins. Or a coyote up from the desert to escape the heat.

"They get excited when they see a squirrel," said Munoz. "It's something that's here every day. It's just a different environment for them."

It was an environment that affected his whole life, Munoz says. He first got a voucher to attend All Nations through the Bonnie Beach Clinic in East L.A. in 1968. The camp was not even 100 miles away, but the outdoors was something foreign to him in his neighborhood--a place, to a child, that seemed separated from the rest of the world.

"I would see people driving on the freeway. It was an odd feeling that these people from the outside world would venture into our little world," he remembers about living in City Terrace. "Coming to the camp showed me that you could be something else other than what you saw in the barrio."

He fell in love with camp on that trip and attended almost every summer after. But those visits to the mountains nearly ended after the summer of '75, his last year as a camper. He asked the director if he could come back and work at the camp, but there were no positions. Luckily for him--and his future wife--a dishwashing job opened up. He and Renae met as co-workers at camp in 1984.

In the years that passed, Munoz did everything at camp--counselor, backpacking instructor--but getting that first job was a defining moment in his life, he said. He wrote about it for a class assignment a few years ago when he was studying to get his registered nurse's license from Victor Valley College.

Now Munoz plays a part in providing children the same experience he had as a child. His wife is executive director of the All Nations Foundation. Their children, who go to schools in nearby towns, also help around the camp. Munoz was pleasantly surprised to see that as Marcos became a teenager, he'd take developmentally disabled campers by the arm and help them get around the camp.

All Nations has weeklong or 10-day sessions for children or developmentally disabled adults. Teens also come to the camp, which has programs for them in facilities away from the main grounds.

The camp was once part of a bigger foundation associated with the United Methodist Church, which operated the All Nations Church in downtown L.A. and health clinics in the inner city. The foundation, dating to the turn of the century, eroded, and the camp is its only remnant.

The camp's funding sources include the Times Camp Fund, as well as grants and private fund-raising. The children pay about $25 or nothing at all if they can't afford it. Families who don't qualify for the reduced fee are allowed to pay whatever they can afford up to the $350 it costs the camp to host a child for one session.

"Very rarely do we charge anybody the full amount," Munoz said. "We don't want to make it such a financial burden that they are not going to be able to afford it."

The kids enjoy traditional camp activities such as arts and crafts and swimming at a nearby lake to which they must hike. There's the dance the last night--and the inevitable camp romances.

And when the buses full of kids pull away from camp in the morning, there are teary eyes: on both sides of the window panes.

It's good to play a part in all this," said Munoz. "Hopefully, it will touch their lives."

*

* Checks, made out to the Times Camp Fund, should be sent to: Times Summer Camp Fund, File No. 53401, Los Angeles, CA 90074-3401. Please do not send cash. All donations are tax-deductible.

* Unless donors request otherwise, gifts of $25 or more are acknowledged each Tuesday in the Southern California Living section.

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