It amuses Jean Villegas to remember how worried she was about sending Sarah Parker, her 11-year-old daughter, to residential camp for the first time. "I was so anxious!" she says with a laugh. "Sarah was perfectly fine and had a complete blast … but I was a wreck!"
That was two years ago. This summer, Villegas is relaxed as she readies Sarah, now 13, to leave for picturesque Camp Mariastella. Sarah has no worries at all; she's eager to spend a week among the pines and oaks of the San Gabriel Mountains, two hours from her Downey home.
A camp for girls age 7 to 15, Camp Mariastella is driven by the goal of "empowering little girls to become strong women," says executive director Jennifer Gaeta. The program is designed to nurture confidence, independence and creative decision-making. Plus, the girls are encouraged to explore their values and dreams.
The camp offers a range of activities including swimming, hiking, archery and arts and crafts. A popular choice is drama, where girls perform skits around a campfire. According to Gaeta, "Drama is open to everyone, and you don't have to be 'good.' For some of the girls, it's all they need to get going and build their confidence."
For Sarah, creating skits is an exciting alternative to a favorite activity back home, going to the movies. During her first summer at camp, Sarah's skit playfully spoofed a false fire scare. Last year, she settled on a Disney theme, rewriting a song from "Aladdin" to reflect the camp experience. She sang, "A whole new world, a new fantastic point of view. Look there's a rock, and there's a tree. There's a whole new place for you and me."
This summer, she plans to take her "whole new world" theme further with a Tokyo-inspired act. Although she has never been to Japan, she's intrigued by the cosmopolitan city.
Two years ago, Sarah and her mother were living at House of Ruth, an East Los Angeles women's shelter. When Camp Mariastella offered Sarah the chance to attend, Villegas jumped at the chance to give her daughter a "getaway," even for just one week.
Now Villegas is thriving in her Downey community. Sarah is bouncing back from a challenging early childhood. This summer, Camp Mariastella will continue to be the perfect setting for Sarah to imagine the many "whole new worlds" that await her.
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 campaign is part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund, a McCormick Foundation fund, which matches all donations at 50 cents on the dollar.
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