February 24, 2016 at 5:18 am
BOULDER CREEK — You can still get wet after it rains in the redwood forest, where the tall trees take their time getting dry and sometimes drop wet, heavy branches at your feet. I recently spent a rainy weekend at a youth camp here, where teenagers journey into the wilderness of prejudice and hate and emerge enlightened.
“Are you really a writer?”
Yes, I told Eli Perez, an inquisitive student from Del Mar High School in San Jose. But I was also at Camp Everytown, which is run by the nonprofit Silicon Valley Faces, as a counselor and an alumnus. Almost a lifetime ago, I attended a similar camp in Southern California. Could I reconnect with my 16-year-old self?
Basically, the overnight four-day camps offer social awareness through frank, emotionally draining workshops and discussions. This may sound like teen torture, liberal baloney or court-ordered sentencing for juvenile offenders. Actually, the camps are fun, with plenty of singing, dancing and outdoor activities. We couldn’t hike, though, because recent rains washed out the trail.
The students come from all over, for different reasons. Some seek leadership training to further their causes. Many are encouraged to attend by counselors — these youths include promising but disadvantaged students who might otherwise fall through the cracks, and emotionally damaged kids who need to break out of their shells.
Together, they learn to understand the forces of social division, including privilege and poverty; racial and ethnic stereotypes; religious bias; and shunning of gay, transgender and physically or mentally disabled people.
School administrators say kids who go through the camp help calm campus conflicts. The most popular counselors included two Santa Clara County sheriff’s deputies and a San Jose police officer, who told me they wanted and needed to understand teens better. That said, the idea that any camp can deliver social awareness in less than a week is asking a lot — even among some of the teen campers I supervised.
“I thought this camp was going to be a joke,” said Zach Chamberlain-Carr of Piedmont High, an affluent, high-achieving school near Oakland. Across the aisle, Jhostine Pomariga of Del Mar High, an urban campus in San Jose, said, “My mother wanted me to come here so I could learn empathy.”
By the end of camp, both boys didn’t want Camp Everytown to end.
Two dramatic and related exercises captured the camp’s essence and methods and illuminated the social divide in the Bay Area. In the “Privilege Line,” the students stood shoulder to shoulder in the main yard and held hands with someone unlike them. Camp counselor Monica Goulette then issued a series of orders based on their family history and social status.
“Please step forward if you’ve ever had a servant in your house,” she said. “Please take one step back if one of your parents did not finish high school.”
On and on she went in a cold, matter-of-fact tone of voice. The multicultural, rainbow line didn’t last long. At the end, it was mostly white, Chinese and Asian Indian students from Piedmont High who stood at the front. Working class and poorer Mexican, Filipino and Polynesian students from Del Mar and Leigh high schools stood at the rear, along with a few white kids. Suddenly, the haves and have-nots had faces. Now what?
“I felt down, like my legs weren’t there, and I felt like someone no one wanted,” said Logan Panisi, a Polynesian from Leigh High who finished way back. “But I was motivated, like everyone around me in the back, to keep moving forward.”
Sam Watters, a white kid from Piedmont, finished in front.
“I looked back and saw all these people with looks of sadness,” he said. “I want to help them. It’s not so much my responsibility. Part of it is, yes, but it’s mostly my choice. I want to make it happen.”
The next day, Everytown’s “Segregation Simulation” showed them how progress doesn’t happen by itself. The exercise was a one-stop shop for college, home loans, employment and jail time for anyone unlucky enough to get busted by me — I got to play a cop.
Sam and his rich cohorts got everything they applied for, even if I had arrested them for misdemeanors or felonies. Logan’s ilk got nothing. When Jane Andersen, of Piedmont, simulated a charity to help the underprivileged, a grown-up playing the role of a cynic called her a condescending do-gooder who would just end up being resented by the poor, brown people she’s trying to help.
There was a great deal of confrontational, didactic drama and blunt language like this at Camp Everytown, but there also was a good amount of personal, therapeutic guidance in small sessions. That’s where trained counselors, certainly not me, got the kids to open up about their lives at home. The twin pillars of Camp Everytown are empathy and leadership. Neither can be fulfilled if a teen isn’t emotionally ready.
“This is when you can still reach them, get to their hearts,” said Dorit Grossman Perry, a camp volunteer who also teaches at Santa Clara University’s law school. “College is too late. They can write about stereotypes in college essays, but it would be mostly an academic pursuit. Here, they can still feel the issues we’re talking about.”
Silicon Valley Faces says the camps deliver. In a post-camp survey last year, more than 90 percent of students from 13 participating schools said they try to understand what others are going through, stand up for those being bullied, and believe they can make a difference in their communities. Almost all of them would recommend Camp Everytown to a friend.
Yet the number of camps offered has shrunk from 21 eight years ago to an expected seven this year. Schools once paid or subsidized the cost — $500 per student this year — out of PTA funds, donations, grants, fundraising and discretionary funds. More families are being asked to pay and, as these kids are learning, the more privileged find it easier to send their kids to camp.
As our teens said their emotional goodbyes and boarded buses back to the real world, I asked Eli Perez, the Del Mar student who wondered what a journalist was doing in camp, how he felt after four days. He was one of the more vocal, low-income Hispanic students and no stranger to family tragedy and violence. His answer surprised me.
“I’m more thankful for my family,” Eli said. “I love them.”
Which is to say, I think, he’s ready to become a leader.
how to help
To contribute to Camp Everytown, send checks payable to Silicon Valley FACES,
P.O. Box 11014. San Jose, CA 95103-1014. Or donate online: https://secure.donationpay.org/svfaces/
READ THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN THE MERCURY NEWS HERE.