Camp Laurel, which serves youths affected by HIV and AIDS, is much like any other wilderness camp. Children ages 6 to 19 enjoy canoeing, archery, hiking and arts and crafts, surrounded by nature in the San Bernardino Mountains. But it may be the only camp where participants search the wooded campsite for "Tootie Birds."
Campers are delighted to discover that these fabulously dressed, magical creatures are camp counselors in disguise. The "Tootie Bird" search is one of many ways that the counselors creatively enhance the experience for their campers each year. And many are dedicated volunteers.
Volunteer help is essential in enabling the camp to provide services at no cost to participants. According to Margot Andrew-Anderson, the camp's founder and director, "They do it from the heart. And they appreciate being there because even in one week they see a difference in the kids."
About 60 volunteers help at each camp session, working in a variety of positions. All participate in providing a safe, supportive environment where campers can challenge themselves to overcome obstacles and build self-esteem.
Meredith Riesner began volunteering as a college student 10 years ago. "Little did I realize," she says, "that I would be hooked for so long. Now Camp Laurel is a huge part of my life." For Riesner, it's especially rewarding to see her campers grow and develop into confident young adults, despite the major obstacles of HIV/AIDS.
At this year's camp in early July, one of Riesner's campers — whom she has known since he was 6 – turned 17 years old and completed a counselor-in-training program. To see him help the new batch of 6-year-old campers was particularly memorable, Riesner says.
Jazz Johnson has four years experience as a counselor and notes that the participation of volunteers is a key element to the camp experience. "A lot of times at home, the kids don't believe people care about them," he says. "When they realize that counselors are volunteering their time and returning year after year, the campers feel important and valued."
As an example, he tells the story of one camper who was initially aggressive and offensive. Johnson eventually learned that the boy had no family support and was teased by his schoolmates. So Johnson helped him to channel his aggression into assertiveness and strong leadership skills. Such progress was possible because "Camp is a safe place to push yourself," Johnson says. "We challenge the kids to be a little better than they thought they could be."
With $1.6 million raised last year by the Los Angeles Times Summer Camp Campaign, approximately 6,500 children will go to camp in Southern California this summer.
The Summer Camp Campaign is part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund, a McCormick Foundation fund, which matches all donations at 50 cents on the dollar.
Donations are tax-deductible as permitted by law. Addresses will not be released or published. Mail donations using the attached form (do not send cash), donate by phone at (800) 518-3975 or donate online now at latimes.com/donate.