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Outdoor Experience Is Brought Within Reach

Camp Max Straus offers children a five-day adventure in the Verdugo Mountains, which many parents could not afford.

June 22, 2003|Nita Lelyveld | Times Staff Writer

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Justin Ryan Jones left a party on a Wilshire Boulevard rooftop carrying two things: a large white laundry bag overflowing with camp supplies and a bright yellow Creamsicle, which was leaving its sticky mark across his cheeks. Justin, who is 9, was thrilled about the Creamsicle. His mother was much more thrilled by the bag.

Sleep-away camp wasn't in the budget of Vikki Jones, who said she has been raising Justin and his brother on her own after leaving an abusive marriage. But next Sunday, Justin will head to Camp Max Straus in Glendale for a five-day adventure of campfires, horseback riding, swimming and exploring the outdoors.

Fees for the camp in the Verdugo Mountains are on a sliding scale, with some campers paying nothing. Since 1938, the non-profit, non-sectarian facility, operated by Jewish Big Brothers/Big Sisters, has made camp possible for thousands of low-income Los Angeles children.

Justin's mother learned about the camp through the Child & Family Guidance Center in Northridge. She was thrilled to find out that she would have to pay only $108 to give her son the sleepover camp experience.

If it weren't for Camp Max Straus Clothing Distribution Day, which is what lured the Jones family from Northridge to the Miracle Mile, camp clothes and supplies would have been a major financial strain for Vikki Jones, 46.

Organized by the fashion division of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the annual event provides young people heading to Camp Max Straus with everything they need, from sunblock to camp T-shirts.

"I just couldn't afford these things. I wouldn't be able to get them all," said Vikki Jones, who is on disability leave from her job at a title company because of a workplace injury.

All of the items at the clothing distribution day are donated -- mostly by local apparel manufacturers. Almost all the donated items, except the toiletries, are custom-made.

"We make almost everything from scratch," said Brian Weitman, the event's chairman, whose own company, Security Textiles, makes hidden and necessary features of clothes, from pocket linings to bra pads.

"It's a big effort we work on all year round," Weitman said. "These kids aren't getting close-out merchandise. They're getting brand-new things made for them."

It's an important point, because building self-esteem is one of the camp's central goals. Counselors work hard to boost campers' confidence and pride. They don't want children from poor backgrounds to feel second-best.

Before clothing distribution day was started six years ago, some children arrived at camp already sure that they wouldn't measure up, said Doug Gold, president and chief executive of Jewish Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the camp's operator.

"It's very sad. Some children have truly shown up with virtually nothing but the clothes on their backs," he said. "It's so important for kids to feel like they fit in. Now the kids come well outfitted and equally outfitted and feeling good."

Eighty-five percent of the campers live below the poverty line. They learn about the camp from social workers and school counselors and social-service agencies.

"Oftentimes, this is one of the only times that the children receive three square meals a day. Many of these children have never seen the wild. Many of these kids hear gunfire when they go to sleep at night," Gold said.

The new experiences at camp can be life-changing, he said.

Take horseback riding.

"There's no greater booster for self-esteem than to put a child on a 3,000-pound animal and have that big animal respond to the child's commands," Gold said.

The Camp Max Straus Clothing Distribution Day takes the theme of self-esteem very seriously. Organizers go to great pains to not make children feel humiliated about getting hand-outs. When families arrived at this year's event, they immediately heard music and saw balloons.

Each camper was given a coupon book for items, from shampoo to a mattress pad to sleep on in the woods. It became a game to race around from table to table, getting everything. It was much more like a shopping spree than charity.

"Oh wow! This is really, really surprising. You're all shopping and you get to eat, so it's really, really cool," Ashley Colomo, 11, said as she moved around the rooftop.

"Oh wow, we get to go to Vans! That is sweet! That's my favorite store," she said, as she picked up a coupon for half off any pair of sneakers at a Vans store.

At each table, volunteers addressed Ashley and the other children by name and told them to have fun at camp.

The day was about much more than picking up clothes. Kids lined up at the ball-toss booth and an area where they could test their skills at shooting hoops.

Even the smallest children were urged to swing the big mallet in the strength test, to see if they could bang it hard enough to ring a bell. Win or lose, they got prizes -- including caps and disposable cameras. They could also compete in dance contests, and munch on Krispy Kreme doughnuts and popcorn.

Heading back to the car, Justin Jones said he was looking forward to camp, to "having fun, swimming, playing games."

His mother beamed.

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