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Camper turns counselor

Danielle Allen's life experience makes her uniquely qualified in her role at UCLA's UniCamp.

May 30, 2003|Gayle Pollard-Terry | Times Staff Writer

This summer Danielle Allen is going back to UCLA UniCamp for the third time. She'll pack the old T-shirt that her friends autographed four years ago after they hiked two days to a peak in the San Gorgonio mountain range in San Bernardino. Allen, whose camp nickname is Precious, will sleep again in a cabin with 10 girls.

But this time, the 18-year-old will not be a camper; she'll be a counselor. Unlike every other counselor, though, she's not a UCLA student. The mother of a 1-year-old son, she's not even in college. But she has lived a life similar to that of the low-income children who attend the camp.

"I feel I can help someone else," she said recently. "Most of the counselors are not really from the areas the kids are coming from."Although Allen dropped out of high school, she is about to complete the equivalent of a high school diploma. She's looking for a secretarial job, and planning a future that she hopes will include community college, UCLA and a career as a registered nurse.

She called UCLA to volunteer at UniCamp, one of the many camps supported by the Los Angeles Times Summer Camp Fund. This year about 11,000 children will experience a special summer thanks to the $1.4 million raised last year.

"It's awesome for her to be doing this," said Siavash Fooladian, known as Fungi (all counselors and children at camp use nicknames) and student co-program director of UniCamp. "She gives a definite perspective that a lot of these UCLA students do not have. She brings a different background. She's been in camp. She knows where the kids come from.... She's lived it."

A "daddy's girl," Allen said she took her parents' divorce hard. They split when she was 9. "I was going through some bad times with my mom and siblings, not getting along," she said. Based on family income -- her mother worked as a secretary to support four children -- Allen attended two camps supported by The Times: Camp Max Straus, which is run by the Jewish Big Brothers and Big Sisters in the foothills of the Verdugo Mountains in Glendale, and the UCLA camp.

"I escaped reality. It was a different environment," she said. "You are away from all the shooting, gang-banging, murders and violence." She hiked, swam in the pool, fished in the lake, tried archery, crafted necklaces and bracelets, performed in talent shows and made lasting friendships -- all in one week.

"At the end of camp, we all cried," she said. "At that time, I thought I was grown. I thought I wasn't going to cry, but I did."

Back home, her difficulties continued. She tried living in Texas with her dad. When that didn't work out, she ran away. But she kept calling her mom, and they found a way to reunite and work it out.

Allen, who lives in Inglewood with her son and his father, is demonstrating the kind of resilience that children can acquire at camp, said Bruce Muchnick, a psychologist who advises 24 summer camps around the country.

"Experiencing camp as a celebration of life connecting with the physical setting ... facing up to our anxieties and fears, engaging our senses, interacting with others in meaningful ways further the development of personal strength and resiliency," said Muchnick from his office in suburban Philadelphia. Those qualities, he said, increase the likelihood that children will return home "better equipped to meet life's challenges."

At camp, Allen plans to deliver a message to children, especially to the girls who remind her of herself: "Despite obstacles, you can achieve. Keep your goals. Even though you have a life that may not be so good right now, we still have a lot of years to come. So we can always get back on that horse."

Since 1954, The Times has raised more than $26 million and helped to send nearly 370,000 underprivileged children to camp from the five counties of Southern California. This year, the McCormick Tribune Foundation will match the first $1 million in contributions at 50 cents on the dollar.

Donations are tax-deductible as permitted by law. For more information, call (213) 237-5771. To make credit card donations, visit mp. To send checks use the attached coupon.

Please, do not send cash.

Unless requested otherwise, gifts of $25 or more are acknowledged in The Times. The summer camp campaign is part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund, a fund of the McCormick Tribune Foundation.

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