Years ago, I worked with a program called Trips for Kids. We took "inner city" kids into the "wilderness" on bicycles. In other words, we took them out Tennessee Valley or up Mount Tam. It was an unbelievable experience for the kids and for us. Many of the children had never been out of San Francisco, and they had certainly not been on a bike.
One time, the kids we played with were from Marin City. They were kids who live at the south end of Sausalito, right next to the bay. We took them up behind their homes, into the headlands, GGNRA, a national park. These children had never been up there, had never seen the view, never seen where they lived. They could have walked, and, yet, they did not know they lived in one of the most beautiful areas of the world.
I read Jon Carroll's column today, and the memory comes back. We don't have to fly somewhere to help people. Opportunity to help surrounds us. Reach out, and climb. See the view. Stretch your hand. Share an apple with a view of the land.
Monday, May 1, 2006
Poverty is a place of diminished horizons. Literally, in some cases, because most of the urban poor live in flat areas, where the views aren't. (The value of views is quantifiable; ask a real estate agent.) And more often metaphorically, because people in the grip of poverty cannot see possibilities, and the famous cycle of poverty continues because the exits are not clearly marked.
A Berkeley real estate agent named Diane Mintz began working as a tutor at Coronado Elementary School in Richmond in the late '90s. She had a revelation, a phrase that she repeats over and over again -- "these kids had never seen the Golden Gate Bridge." Some of them didn't even know the Golden Gate Bridge was there to be seen.
The kids also had never been to a museum or a regional park. Their mental map of their larger community was pinched and drab. They had their own families and their own culture, but they were unaware of the world. They were unaware of nature, or the eco-system, or the concept of interdependence. They were cut off by freeway abutments and turf wars and the limited expectations that surrounded them.
So she started with field trips. She made it up as she went along. She asked for the school's help in identifying the most at-risk kids, and those were the kids she started with. In 1999, she raised enough money to send 10 kids from Coronado School on field trips; the next year, she raised enough money to send 81 kids to summer camp.
All sorts of studies have been done on the impact of summer camps on poor kids, and the conclusion seems to be: big impact. Bigger impact than you'd think. Social scientists have long been aware of something called summer loss, the way that disadvantaged kids lose academic ground compared with their wealthier counterparts during the summer months. The reading gap widens, for instance. Kids who go to summer camp do not, it appears, experience summer loss.
Plus, they have fun. Let's not discount fun as a cultural value. The kids do archery and swimming and boating. They sing around the campfire and walk in the woods. They run around and yell and act like kids. It's a very ordinary thing, unless you don't get to do it all the time, or you don't get to do it in a safe place. Then it's a pearl of great price.
Diane Mintz is a force of nature. I would not want to be standing between her and anything she thought was important to have. She just started making the program bigger. She became a 501(c)3, and her group found a name, YES, for Youth Enrichment Strategies. In 2006, 400 kids. They go to established summer camps like Camp Loma Mar and Camp Winnarainbow and the Cazadero Performing Arts Camp and Camp Jones Gulch and the CYO Summer Camp and Camp Avary for children of prisoners.
But wait, there's more. Mintz noticed that when the kids got home, their parents were uninterested in their experiences. "It was like, 'Get in the car.' " Her solution: family camp. Everybody gets to have fun. Everybody gets to look for lizards or walk in the tall grass or sing around the campfire. Plus, the adults get together by themselves and talk about issues, talk about dreams, talk about kids.
"The first one I did of these," she says, "was in Chabot Regional Park. We camped out. These are people who live in various dangerous neighborhoods; these are people who deal with peril. But it's dark in the country, and the noises are different, and people were apprehensive. I worried that I had gone too far. But at the end of the camp, everyone said it was their favorite part. Later, we found out that everyone likes walking in the dark without flashlights, too."
Two years of family camps; 800 people have participated so far. "You know, I don't know whether I'm quote unquote making a difference," she says. "I don't think I'm saving the world. I'm helping some kids in Richmond."
Perhaps you'd like to help too. YES is having a benefit banquet May 21 at the Bancroft Hotel in Berkeley. There's a silent auction, and food, and pleasant people, and dancing later. Tickets are $125 per, advance purchase only. Call (510) 527-1400. Or maybe you're busy that day. Fine. The sentimental gift of money is always welcome. Send your contributions to YES, 1577 Solano Ave., Berkeley, CA 94707. You won't be saving the world; you'll just be helping some kids in Richmond. It'll be the best thing you do all day.