As a boy, Gilbert Arellano remembers sleeping in a tent and taking harrowing nighttime trips to the outhouse at the Circle V Ranch Camp. When Arellano sent his son to the same camp 15 years later, flushable toilets, running water and air-conditioned cabins had sprung up, but Old Man Reilly still haunted an abandoned cabin where counselors reported sightings and mysterious events.
"I wish I could go back, man," said the now 30-year-old Arellano while sitting at a Fullerton restaurant. "I wish I could send all the kids out here to camp."
The camp, run by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, sits on 30 acres of the Los Padres National Forest overlooking Santa Barbara. This summer, more than 1,200 underprivileged children will attend a weeklong session, when they can play sports, hike, swim and do arts and crafts.
"I love being a part of the kids having an opportunity to get out of the city for a week and seeing the looks on their faces the first night when they look up and see the ceiling of stars," said camp director Ricardo Garcia. "My favorite thing about camp is that we get kids from all different economic home situations, but once they're at camp, they're all just kids."
When he was 11, Arellano was recruited to attend the camp from St. Philip Benizi Catholic Church, where he was an altar boy. For most of his life, he lived in a cramped two-bedroom apartment in Fullerton with his mother, father and five siblings. He credits the camp for teaching him to be responsible and independent; campers are chosen each day to be "table leaders," and are in charge of setting the table with silverware, milk and napkins before meals. "Now I iron everyone's clothes in the house and do all the dishes," he said. "It makes you a humble person."
Many of Arellano's cousins also attended the camp and have gone on to successful careers as lawyers, detectives and dentists. Arellano now attends Fullerton College, hoping to earn a degree in sociology or psychology with an emphasis on juvenile behavior. "For kids that are incarcerated and need help changing their lives," he said, explaining his choice to his son, Gilbert Jr., "I want to help because I was helped."
Gilbert Jr., now 11 with a spiky haircut and a dazzling smile, has followed in his father's footsteps at Circle V Ranch Camp. An aspiring professional athlete, he enjoys football, baseball and wrestling and has fond memories of sleeping outside on the basketball courts for one night during the week, where the counselors showed "Finding Nemo" and "Dracula" on a large projection screen as campers ate popcorn. But despite living it up with the camp's modern improvements, Gilbert Jr. still longs to rough it the way his father did. "He wants to sleep in a tent so bad," his father said with a laugh.
About 12,000 children will go to camp this summer, thanks to $2.1 million raised last year. The annual fundraising campaign is part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund of the McCormick Tribune Foundation, which this year will match the first $1.2 million in contributions at 50 cents on the dollar. Donations are tax-deductible. For more information, call (213) 237-5771. To make donations by credit card, go to latimes.com/summercamp. To send checks, use the attached coupon. Do not send cash. Unless requested otherwise, gifts of $50 or more will be acknowledged in The Times.