UniCamp Session 7 was AMAZING. The week ended before it even started really… I don’t even really know where to begin explaining how the week went. It sounds cliché but it I don’t think I could qualify what the week was in words besides ‘Woodsey Magical’. When people used to say that I’d secretly think to myself, “wow you are a fairy,” but now I truly understand. I tried as hard as possible to string together all my thoughts in a coherent and organized way, but there’s so much to say.
To people who know nothing about UniCamp, it is a UCLA nonprofit organization 75 years strong that sends kids from underserved areas of Los Angeles up to camp for a week. This year, there were 7 different sessions of ~50 volunteers and ~100-150 campers that went up to camp, each for a week, out of summer. My session, SESSION SEVEN, went up to camp during August 22nd – 27th. Sessions 6 and 7 recruit from LAUSD’s various highschool leadership programs known as Beyond the Bell, so all of the kids that are ‘awarded’ with the chance to come up to camp for a week are at the top of their leadership programs in service, hours, and contribution.
My official role for the week was to be a Dance Specialist with my amazing co-specialist Sunshine. Our job was to provide camp with energetic dance ‘Rotations’. Rotations range from Dance, Archery, Alpine (climbing), Swimming, Mountain Biking, Sailing, Arts and Crafts, Drama, Leadership Games, etc. – all of which are run by different specialists like me. On the other end are Counselors, a co-pair of counselors that are with a Unit of 10-12 campers for the entirety of camp, 24/7. Supporting all of us are our lovely LSHIP, Feather, DJ, Milu, and Veggie, and various UniCamp staff.
The week was filled with lots of unit bonding time, crazy ass meals that are better than a lot of the food I eat on my own, rotations, singing, campfires, a talent show, a thunderstorm + rain, a bunch of different solemn/bonding/fun/energetic programs, etc. Beyond this description it’s really hard to explain what camp was like on a visceral, emotional level for me, and everyone up there I am sure.
Us UCLA volunteers got up to camp a few hours before all the campers got there on Sunday, prepping and unpacking in nervous and excited anticipation. When the first bus arrived, several campers told me they were thinking (and probably saying), “who the hell are all these crazy ass people singing songs and making us play games?” For the first dinner on Sunday, we had pasta and relatively orderly silence. By Monday’s dinner, the camp came alive for me. All the manly, timid, too-cool personality types and units were running around, singing songs, laughing, yelling, challenging each other to water chugging contests, and letting go of their inhibitions. It was truly amazing seeing that transition happen so quickly. On a random sidenote, LSHIP provided a points-reward system if Units did certain things from a list of things contained in a book. So, for instance, a unit received 4 points if they challenged me to a dance battle. In one day, I got challenged 5 times by 5 different units. That was pretty awesome.
Earlier on Monday, Sunshine and I started our first dance rotations. We were nervous as hell on Saturday, Sunday, and early Monday, but everyone seemed to be really engaged and energetic during the rotations. I have to take a moment to give Sunshine major props because I could not imagine having a better co-specialist. Not only is she a talented dancer/teacher, but she never, ever, complained about anything and brought a lot of funky energy to the table. I’ve had my fair share of experience leading and teaching dancers, but I am pretty sure I would’ve been eaten alive by the campers without her because she played such a big part in getting people to let go of their inhibitions. I actually feel kinda bad because she was supposed to teach one of her routines on Wednesday, but for various reasons, the rotation that we had planned to teach her routine for started 30-40 minutes late and we had to move outdoors with a pair of dying iPod speakers. But again, she didn’t complain about anything and it speaks volumes about how adaptive and easy-going she is. I was actually nervous about how well we would vibe together when I first found out about working with her a few months ago, but she turned out to be one of my closest friends and confidantes out of our Session 7 niche. NOOBSHINE!
We were both actually amazed by how enthusiastic and talented everyone was after finishing our first rotation. Not to say that we expected everyone to be monotone and untalented, but we were blown away by how many TALENTED dancers there were. We opened almost every dance rotation with a freestyle circle or soul-train activity, and in almost every rotation we saw shuffling, krumping, breaking, locking, popping, new-style, etc. etc. Again, I am incredibly grateful for Sunshine because we were both prepared and experienced enough to handle our rotations and avoid the worst thing that could’ve happened – a loss of respect from our campers.
Monday night, I got another chance to hang out with my adopted unit (specialists get adopted into units even though they aren’t with their campers 24/7), THE BROTHERHOOD. I was actually expecting and had trained for a more unruly and rowdy unit, but for the most part every single person in my unit was respectful and always made me feel welcome and excited to see me whenever I had a chance to spend time with them. We dove into some deeper topics – racism, trust, and passions, but something that really struck me that night was how much everyone had experienced at such a young age, and how refined their insights and maturity had already developed by the age of 17. I hope everyone knows how strong they are. HUSKY, EXCISION, PIZZA-MAN, TIKI, SONNY, BONES, PASTA, BEAR, PETER PARKER, BIG BLUE, SHERE-KHAN, if you guys are reading, SlimJim, Bro, Marky Mark and I wanna hang out with yalls. Unit 13’s skit at campfire > all. I loved spending time with you guys and wish I had room to sleep there. Hopefully we will get the chance to hang out more and if you guys ever need anything please let me know.
I don’t think my emotions have ever contrasted so much in 5 hour span as they did on Wednesday. The specialists were in charge of running a ‘game of life’, in which all the campers complete various tasks for a sped-up version of life through an education system, finding a career, and making money. The catch, however, was that they were pre-discriminated with a pre-assigned shape that determined how far they would make it through the system. The program was complete with a K-12 system, blue/white collar jobs, athletics station, talent audition, ‘candy-dealer’ + cop, and etc. This particular program was hard for us, because no matter what most campers did, we had to deny and reject and tell them they weren’t good enough. The emotional kicker, for me, was when LSHIP and LAUSD closed the program.
They explained that although the game of life was only an hour long game at camp, it is a reality for all of us. Only ~0.2% of African-Americans and Hispanics ever make it to the top of the educational system. 998 out of 1000 people currently do not graduate from high school within those demographics. Here I am, among the 2 out of 1000 people with a college degree (I don’t know what the statistic is for Asian-Americans, but the point is still valid), much less a high-school degree, amongst 150 campers at the pinnacle of their careers, knocking on the door to join that 2-person party. I honestly cried, and I am tearing up a bit writing this. Sunshine (LAUSD Sunshine, not my co), cried as she explained those statistics, how her dad’s only option was to work 12 hours a day for years in a restaurant only for a wage 12x less than she did made an hour. I skipped out on RIB NIGHT (they actually made us BBQ ribs at camp), because I couldn’t maintain the energetic persona that Noobs carried at camp. I sat out because I felt guilty for taking so many things for granted, because my parents went through the same exact shit to make sure that I had everything ironed out in my life, for not taking full advantage of all the obstacle-free opportunity in my life. It was a slap in the face for me, to see someone else cry and feel so intensely for something that is a reality for me. At the same time I felt incredibly grateful to be where I am/was, to be a real-life example of a college graduate. I feel even more invigorated to even out the odds and pursue my business now, because I owe it to everyone not to sit on my high-horse but to do something with everything I’ve been given.
After gathering myself and talking to Boba and DJ (thanks), we started prepping for the Talent Show. THESE KIDS ARE FUCKING LEGIT. For 2.5 hours, we were entertained by stomp, STAND-UP COMEDY, drumline, dance, acapella, skits, improve, guitar, serenades, rapping, etc. We even had to cut out certain acts because the show was overbooked and probably could’ve ran well after 1AM. For me, the highlight of the show and possibly all of camp, was performing with one of my adopted campers Sonny. He taught me one of his routines during some of our nightly downtime, and we performed his piece at the show. The highlight was not that I got a chance to show off to camp, but that I got to connect with him on stage, share something that we’re both so passionate about, and probably most importantly, I feel like the door opened to the start of a fulfilling relationship that will hopefully last well into adulthood. Let me tell you, he is incredibly humble, kind, and WAY BETTER THAN I ever was at the age of 17. We actually hung out after we got back down the mountain this past week, and we taught a routine that we choreographed together during a thunderstorm at camp.
Major props to LSHIP for being as amazing and flexible as they are. A THUNDERSTORM hit the mountain on Thursday, consuming a good 4 hours of what was supposed to be a well-planned Carnival for campers, filled with Henna, games, a Woodsey Marriage station (<3 to my wives Pandasel and Pinky) (you can marry more than once apparently), etc. Beyond that, amidst handling the minutiae of supplies, program execution, logistics, support, maintaining energy+enthusiasm without the foundation of sleep, an entire year of planning and training us, I am in complete awe of how much they handled at camp. Right when we got there, LAUSD forgot to tell them that they had 22 more campers than originally expected. So instead of having 13 units, they somehow allocated space for 2 more units, reassigned specialists to being counselors, and even had two LSHIP from Session 5 drive up the mountain to accommodate. No complaints, no sulking, nothing. Sailboats broke, rain poured, and a million other things happened that remain invisible to me. From my own leadership experiences, I know what it’s like to feel the paranoia of being unappreciated and the insecurity of being inadequate, but I know for a fact that all the hard work and months they put into for a mere 5 days paid off for all of the volunteers and campers. I am probably not speaking only for myself, but the week definitely changed the course of my life.
Seeing the campers leave on Friday afternoon was inexplicably emotional for me. Although I wrote the longest blog post ever, there are no words to describe what I felt after 5 days. I have never really understood the power of a compliment; after telling someone what I respected about him I *think* he cried. The worst thing would have been to see everyone just walk on the bus and leave, but it was clearly obvious that our work paid off, that everyone got something valuable from camp, that strong relationships began that week. Hugging goodbyes with my unit and other campers I got the chance to talk to was the saddest thing ever. I don’t really cry usually, but I definitely started to.
Although I got hives on Thursday from not showering all week (you’re not supposed to shower), used my camera as a watch, and ran on 4 hours of sleep each night (some got less I am sure, especially LSHIP), the week will stand as one of the best weeks of my life. Even though the counselors, specialists, and LSHIP were always on their feet responding to different needs and situations, in some ironic way I haven’t felt that relaxed in awhile. In LA there are a million things to tend to and distract: rent, working, school, friends, Facebook, family, what to eat, blah blah blah. At camp, there is only one focus – to make sure the campers have an amazing time and derive something meaningful and lasting from the experience. Hopefully I did my job, and hopefully Unicamp is only the beginning of many relationships.
After we came down the mountain, post-session began with singing songs with our real names, heinous remixes of camp songs, and heinousness. I can’t and shouldn’t really say too much more, but Mocha Latte’s apartment and two days of Vegas were amazing. The highlight of Vegas+PostSesh was not the drinking in the suite or walking the strip drunk, but all the deep conversations I had with everyone. Honestly, minus a handful of close friends, I didn’t really ever feel that close to Session 7 because I had always had my relationships within ACA as a reference. And while I haven’t invested nearly as much time into Unicamp as I have with ACA, there is a certain level of uninhibitedness and comfort that I already feel with them. I feel like we are glued together by an indescribable experience, and I have genuine, deep respect for everyone I’ve met, and again – hopefully Unicamp is only the beginning of many relationships.
The routine Sonny and I choreographed during the thunderstorm and taught last week at his highschool. Sonny is the guy in the middle.