On the weekend of March 16th, 2013, a gathering occurred in Lake Hughes, California, that world changers dream of happening. Four bus loads of folk descended on a camp in the mountains of the Angeles Forest for an unforgettable weekend. These children and adults came from the Watts area. If you know your history, you may relate the location of Watts to riots, gang warfare, and four major housing projects. For years, this underserved population has resided in these four projects: Jordan Downs, Nickerson Gardens, Imperial Courts, and Gonzaque Village. And other than poverty and violence, they share one common thread: they absolutely hate one another. Children have morphed into adults with gang affiliation and retaliation in their DNA as surely as ethnicity. And somewhere along the line, some of those adults decided enough was enough. Enough hate, death, riots, gangs; it was time to talk.
So on this weekend, a camp in the mountains of the Angeles Forest, opened their doors to what might be considered the most risky, intense social experiment of all times. Kids were put in the same cabins with their hated neighbors. Yes, there were fights, arguments and comments that challenged the staff at every turn.
The number of ‘campers’ that showed up was nearly 100 more than expected…every cabin was full, meals were managed—amazingly—and counselors slept where ever they could find a spot to crash.
Law enforcement was present— not to make arrests, but to be part of a dialogue that would change lives forever. Add in a few felons on probation and you can get a sense of the population. Oh…those ‘new releases’ from incarceration? Their experiences contained so much validity on why young people need to tame their hate and absolve their love for a life of crime. One older gentleman, who had a hand in the leadership of those Watts riots, was now a ringleader in this vital dialogue. One activity, which raised awareness for all present, was for folks to say, “If you really knew me then you would know…” and anyone who shared that same experience stepped over a rope lying on the ground. How sad to watch adults and youngsters stepping across that rope; the shared experience of death of loved ones due to a daily regimen of violence.
But the faces soon had names, the story tellers had histories, and the common element of children laughing at camp and making new friendships emerged. Adult men listened to one another without judgment and the walls began to crumble. Mothers were finally free from the moment-to-moment fear that they would be burying their child. Sure, it looked and felt like camp: ropes courses, hikes, games, campfires, laughter. But it was so much more. This was a culture of hope.
One of the gentleman, who abandoned his gang affiliation (and is alive to tell it) is now foremost in the community to offer youth alternatives to gang membership. He said to the camp staff:
“So many wealthy folks give us money. It is as if they
are standing on a mountain, throwing their funds down
to us. And yes, we take it and build community centers
and such. But this weekend, all of you at this camp–you
came off the mountain top and joined us down here. We
don’t need money for more equipment, really. We need
people. People who are willing to risk a lot to change the
Watts area. This is Watts United.”
Indeed, the entire weekend was called ‘Watts United’. And in a small way, this is huge. Changing how folks have felt about one another for 2-3 generations; for felons, gang leaders and law enforcement to utter….”I never knew you felt that way. Now I get it.” For a child, raised to hate another just because of his/her address, to now bunk with that kid and share breakfast; this is how we change the world: one heart at a time. An area known for riots, was now having a riot, captured in the laughing faces of kids, adults and camp staff. I guess there is great entertainment in watching some 25 year old camp director doing the hilarious ‘milkshake’ skit with a former gang leader. One LAPD officer remarked that he NEVER thought he would see this! Good stuff to write about? Sure…but amazing stuff that truly occurred.
Mothers who came to the ‘Watts United’ weekend, were hoping for a change that would impact the lives of their sons and daughters. When we strip away all the clutter, chatter, the labels and the looks, we can truly see the scars of another. If we listen to their stories, we may hear the echoes of our own. Idealistic? Certainly. But, oh so necessary.
A “culture of hope” is what unfolded at Canyon Creek Sports Camp” in March, 2013. I know how an experience such as this is life changing. I claim this as an ‘ordinary miracle’ in which individuals will be changed forever.
I spent one week as a camp counselor when I was in high school. I did not like school and struggled to get the grades. But the Almighty whispered to me and said, “Deb…you can do kids.” While college was hard and landing a teaching job was as well, I retired from public education after thirty-two years of teaching. I loved it. I speak with certainty when I say that a single experience at camp can become one’s personal compass, pointing to a future of joy, success, and freedom from the past. Each of my own four kids can point to their weeks at camp as being life changing.
And now, one of those four has made it his life’s work. I can’t begin to understand it, but I believe in the power of camps. Of leaving one’s home, sharing life with strangers, and being one with nature; all held together by the influence of a camp staff that begs to make a kid’s week at camp The. Best. Ever. It is an odd dynamic, but is an everyday occurrence at Canyon Creek Sports Camp. I have seen it in action, as one weekend I was invited to teach some science lessons to a group sponsored by the Harold Robinson Foundation. I do not know who was changed more: the campers and their parents, or me. I have no doubts that every event, experience, and emotion that the folks from the Watts area took from this weekend was authentic, powerful, and transforming. This camp just does that to a person.
It will be the vision of youth, tempered with the harsh stories of the elders, that will step up to speak to the history of violence, and rewrite it. Look to ‘Watts United’ as a model on how this happens. We must come off of our selective mountains and gather at the bonfire and reflect on how our collective actions impact a community; take responsibility for such and create bridges where there were barriers. Oh, such pretty words! But it can—and has—occurred.
Watts United. A paradigm shift of the greatest, and most necessary of its kind. Just ask the kids, look at the photos, watch what will happen. A culture of hope, indeed.