Turning Neighbors Into Friends

by Judith Jenya

Six-year-old Alex from El Salvador gets off the bus at Alpine Meadows Camp and is greeted by seventeen-year-old Alex from Russia and fifty-two-year-old Brian from Canada, his volunteer counselors for his week at camp. The younger Alex lost his father in a gang- related shooting in Los Angeles. The older Alex came to the United States as a refugee from St. Petersburg with his family at the age of ten and now lives in Los Angeles. Brian works as a child placement worker for the courts and has come to the camp during his summer vacation. Together — along with eleven other children, teens, and adults — they form part of a “family” group for the duration of the camp.

While many camps host underprivileged children during their summer sessions, the Global Children’s Organization (GCO) organized and sponsored camp program, Turning Neighbors Into Friends, is unique. The camp brings together children living in Los Angeles who have suffered and been affected by war, community violence, hatred, and intolerance — and gives them a time to heal, feel safe, play, and dream freely. The theme of the camp is reconciliation and nonviolence expressed in terms of community, teamwork, cooperation, and creativity. Cooperation begins with the all-volunteer staff. Each year about forty teens and adults ages fifteen to sixty-five come to take care of, play with, and nurture the nearly ninety campers between the ages of six to eleven years — all of whom attend on scholarships raised by GCO.

Because communal violence is the number one killer of children and youth, and California leads the nation in gang violence and gang-related deaths, GCO believes that beginning to teach alternatives to violence at a young age is imperative for the growth and development of children. One of the camp mottoes is “conflict is inevitable, violence is not.”

Dealing with Conflict in a Positive Way

But how do children learn to deal with conflict in a positive way? After providing similar camp programs overseas in the Balkans and Northern Ireland for nine years, GCO, now based in Santa Monica, California, decided to bring the program home and held the first camp for Los Angeles-area children in 2001. GCO found that during their week together — sharing living space, meals, and games with children of different races, ethnicity, places of origin, economic status, and life experience — children have the opportunity to explore some of the alternatives to violence and gangs that they usually are not able to learn in their home environments. They are given the experiences and information to make different choices than others in their families and neighborhoods.

The children come from fourteen countries, speak a myriad of languages — including English — and are meeting people of different cultures living in the same city. In Los Angeles, people tend to live and interact with people of their own national origin, religion, race, and socioeconomic status and are generally socially isolated from others living nearby.

The Los Angeles Program

In order to provide the Turning Neighbors Into Friends camp program in Los Angeles, we first formed a community coalition with a number of local organizations and schools to help us find, register, and organize children from their communities who would benefit from the program and to send one or more volunteers to participate in the camp. The community coalition now includes Los Angeles and Long Beach school systems, international refugee organizations, gang intervention groups from different parts of the city, free clinics, mosques, synagogues, churches, and the YMCA.

Volunteer staff
Creating the program and finding the volunteer staff was the second stage of organizing. We find volunteers through the GCO Web site, media articles, word of mouth, former volunteers, and from the community organizations. The volunteers are the heart of the program and are comprised of 50 percent teens and 50 percent adults.

The teens have a leadership program that runs concurrently within the camp for three hours a day that is staffed by trained youth leaders. This program is designed to allow the teens to debrief and share and to have some separate activities and games. The teens — some from the same communities as the children and some from other parts of the city and other states — become role models for the children and often take leadership roles in the camp. They learn to be mentors to younger children. The teens serve as volunteers with the adults for the balance of the day.

The adult volunteers, include the camp physician, psychologist, art and nature directors, as well as teachers, musicians, film industry people, suburban moms, college and graduate students, former gang members turned community activists, police and sheriff personnel on their vacation time, and a wide range of professional and community people who have heard about the camp and want to be of service to children. All of the volunteers — except those from the communities from where the children come — pay their own way and that of one child. This dedicated group makes a highly motivated and energized staff.

The camp begins with a three-day training program for all the volunteers and teens to bond, become a team, and form the sense of community necessary to work with, nurture, and heal this diverse group of traumatized children. Most of the campers have never been in the outdoors or away from their own families.

Bob Cabeza, a longtime camp director and program director of CORAL at the Long Beach YMCA, leads the staff training and helps develop the camp program. Carol Tanenbaum, Ph.D., talks about working with traumatized children; the permanent staff of Alpine Meadows, the leased camp facility, lead sessions on nature, safety, and camp procedures, and additional training is given in working with the special needs of these children.

Through exercises that emphasize cooperation, the volunteers become teams who can work cooperatively and with equality in cabin groups, which we call “families.” The volunteers experience a series of games and exercises — many of which are then replicated with the children. One exercise consists of making a mask by decorating two sides of a paper plate — one reveals how the child thinks he seems to the world; the other side shows how the child appears to himself. One former gang member painted a calm landscape for his exterior and a jagged red explosion for his interior. He said the red represented the anger against society he used to carry inside — anger that now is channeled into energy for transforming society. It is that same energy the GCO hopes to demonstrate and transfer to the children at camp.

The volunteers in each family prepare the cabin and greet the children in their group immediately on their arrival at camp. Each family consists of approximately eight children of the same age and gender and five or six teens and volunteers. The nearly two to one volunteer-child ratio means that each child has a considerable amount of personal attention — attention that they often cannot get at home. The campers frequently come from single parent families who are overwhelmed and disrupted by poverty, violence, or trauma. Later on, such alienated children often find that gangs are the one place to find the acceptance and love they seek — camp offers them an alternative to that scenario. Children feel so connected they often start calling their volunteer counselors, “mom” and “dad.”

The Program
On the first day, the children learn to think of the camp as a separate “planet” on which they have just landed — run by different rules than the world at home and based on principles of nonviolence, cooperation, and respect. The principles of cooperation and teamwork are evident immediately when each “family” (group of campers and counselors) is given a raw egg. The egg is to be with the children at all times. Various groups design “nests” and pillows to carry the egg and name it — even boys became very solicitous of their egg. While all of the eggs eventually crack, the process of devising a way to care for it and then taking turns being responsible helps to form deep bonds between the children and demonstrates the need for them to work together, make plans, and resolve their differences calmly.

Teamwork is also the focus of the daily morning community building session when the entire camp gathers in a large circle. Each hour and a half session has a different theme, with exercises and games to demonstrate these themes, and is led by the teens and the teen leadership staff. Themes of self-respect, respect for others, trust, cooperation, tolerance, and conflict resolution are acted in skits — first by the teens and then by the children. These themes are echoed and reinforced throughout the day — in art and other activities. One ongoing theme of the community-building time is for children to own the name they want to be called and disown the names that others have given them that they do not want — such as stupid, lazy, etc.

There are “family” group times during the day, and at night before bedtime the children share their triumphs, hurts, and feelings that lead to tears and anger. The children learn to open their hearts and to really listen to others and be heard by them. This in itself is often new to them and very powerful in moving children toward new choices. Many of the children have internalized extraordinary violence, loss, and uncertainty — the key to working with them successfully is to gain their trust and give them personal attention. Listening to and encouraging children to share their dreams and hopes helps them believe there is a future for them.

Following community building each morning and alternating every day, half the camp goes swimming and the other has a nature outing with hiking, exploring the forest animals, and sharing the silence found in the woods. It is the quiet that is most unnerving to these urban children who are used to the sirens, shouts, and noises of crowded urban life. Part of the nature time is learning about biodiversity. The interwoven diversity in the natural world is used as a metaphor for the diversity of Los Angeles, the most diverse city in the United States. We expand this metaphor to show how in the natural world, groups interact and thrive and support each other interdependently. Being in the natural world — finding animal prints, smelling pine needles, learning to swim and then swimming in a lake, running in clean air, drawing and painting in the shade of pine trees — works wonders for children who are able to find a connection between nature and themselves.

Afternoons are spent in a wide range of activities — art, music, theater, dance, hiking, basketball, soccer, field games, and just hanging out with the volunteers sharing stories. Children are very interested in stories about the lives of the volunteers such as those told to them by Alex Sanchez, a former gang member and now a leader of Homies Unidos. Alex is a second-time volunteer who attended with his young son for whom he is a single parent. While swimming, many kids ask him about his tattoos and the four gunshot wounds they can see on his body. Alex’s accounts of his past experiences helps them open up about their own situations and the dialogue gives him another opportunity to discuss the pitfalls of violence and gang behavior.

In arts and crafts, led by a volunteer artist from Hawaii, children are encouraged to make things they can give to other children, as well as keep for themselves. One girl, Celeste, made a bracelet for a volunteer who loved it, which caused her to cry. She said that at school she had made friendship bracelets for six girls she wanted to be her friends, but all six had returned them — she felt friendless and alone. At camp she had requests from her new friends for the beautiful bracelets and she beamed as each girl accepted her friendship bracelet and gave her a hug and a big thank you.

Art projects are done both individually and in groups and range from mask making to painting — and are hung for others to see and admire. In one project, each child is given a ribbon of different widths and colors and encouraged to write or draw his or her wishes and hopes for the future on the ribbon and to sign it. The ribbons are then woven together into a tapestry of peace and hope that is hung in the dining room on the last day of camp. The children are amazed to see that each of them has a part in creating a beautiful object — multicolored and varied — and they take great pride and ownership in the tapestry, looking hard to find their ribbon and pointing it out to others.
Mealtime is another time for sharing, making friends, and learning about the other cultures. Because of the Muslim children no pork is served, and eating new foods — often new vegetables prepared by the staff of the camp — is often a major challenge for children used to eating a particular kind of food. Some refuse to eat at first, until they become hungry enough and then they gingerly explore one or two new tastes and dishes.

The evening programs consist of campfires, eating s’mores, singing, storytelling, listening to the night sounds, and seeing the bright stars. Often musicians, astronomers, magicians, and children’s performance artists come from Los Angeles to donate their time and talents for an evening. The final evening program ends with a teen and child talent show/dance. Campers and staff make costumes and decorations for this closing celebration.

Nighttime and bedtime bring up other feelings of insecurity, fear of unfamiliar things, homesickness, and wanting to talk and get reassurance. The GCO camp is completely unplugged — no cell phones, Game Boys, headsets, or other ways to tune out to the rest of the world. For some children and their parents, this is the greatest challenge in coming to camp — not talking for a whole week. For most of the children, going to a summer camp with unrelated people is not part of their culture, and most have never slept overnight away from home. In the post September 11 atmosphere, both children and parents had great trepidation. Allaying the fears of both parents and children before camp was a great challenge. Camp staff was always available to answer questions and calm fears that are hard to put to rest. This was often reflected in children having a hard time going to sleep. The numbers of volunteers sharing the cabins with the children help ensure that each child who needs reassurance — the comfort of someone to listen — always has a person he or she knows and trusts available to talk or read to them.

Going home from camp brings tears and sadness that camp is ending. Each child goes home with many mementos as well as memories, plus a handmade journal scrapbook and address book of new friends. Throughout the year, programs, picnics, projects, family campouts, trips to local museums and concerts, and workshops bring the children together with their new friends and the teen mentors and volunteers. We encourage campers to stay in touch with their mentors and volunteers at GCO and with each other.

Life Changes

In addition to the children benefiting from personal and tangible learning and growing experiences, the volunteers often experience life-altering changes. Teen volunteers who come from white, middle class, privileged neighborhoods worrying about SAT scores and college applications found out that they share many ideas, and concerns with inner-city kids who are just barely staying within the system, and because of this, they gained new thoughts and possibilities for their lives. Children and volunteers leave camp with an appreciation of what nature gives to humans — wanting to work to preserve the fragile wilderness. Everyone also goes home with a deeper understanding of both the joys and challenges of living peacefully in a multiracial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society that is full of uncertainty and risk — but such great possibilities.

Judith Jenya is the founder and executive director of the Global Children’s Organization and director of Turning Neighbors Into Friends camps. The Los Angeles Program is held at Alpine Meadows Camp in Angelus Oaks, California, an ACA-accredited camp. For more information go to www.globalchild.org.

Originally published in the 2002 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.