Forget Halloween and Christmas. For 200 foster children, the most exciting holiday of the year is two weeks in July spent at Cal Aggie Camp – a place that represents everything they know of comfort and home.
“For me, camp is a place where people care,” said Sabrina Silva, a 17-year-old camper who has been in the foster care system with her twin sister since they were toddlers. “Every time we go [to camp], life picks up where we left off; we make friendships that last, and the counselors are always there for us. We learn about ourselves more than anything. Life isn’t as hard as it can be, because there are people there to help make it easier.“
For over 20 years, the ASUCD-sponsored philanthropy has touched the lives of foster children, and inspired the Davis students and alumni who make up the camp’s volunteer staff. For summer, Cal Aggie Camp is seeking a new batch of counselors, lifeguards and kitchen staff to carry on the camp’s traditions. All students, even those graduating in the spring, are encouraged to apply before the Feb. 13 deadline.
“[Cal Aggie camp] was set up in the 1980s, and the mission is the same – it’s geared toward improving the lives of underprivileged children,” said Austin Merrill, a recent UC Davis graduate and camp director since 2006. “We work almost exclusively with local and satellite foster agencies, but the program itself touches more than just Davis or Sacramento. We have kids that fly up from L.A. to go to camp – kids I remember being around since they were eight, and now they’re 16 or 17 years old.“
So what does it mean to be a Cal Aggie counselor? For most, an exciting two weeks of face painting, swimming, capture the flag, campfire songs and all of the childhood activities that many children might take for granted, but most foster children never have the opportunity to enjoy.
“It’s hard to explain what it’s like to have a 17-year-old camper who refused to participate in activities on the first day running around with his face painted and having a blast at the camp carnival on the last day,” said Alexandra Frick, a former ASUCD senator who volunteered as a counselor last summer. “After being an ASUCD senator, it’s refreshing to see something that is a part of ASUCD, but without the politics. You learn a lot about yourself, both good and bad. And you get to immediately see the benefits of giving your time when the kids are laughing, and just being kids.“
This year’s camp will be held at Gold Hollow camp ground in Nevada City, and takes place from July 12 to 25. The first week is designed for kids ages 5 to 12, and the second is for teenagers between the ages of 13 and 18. If hired as a counselor, students are required to attend both weeks of camp, as well as to participate in a mandatory training weekend in May.
Director Austin Merrill emphasizes the camp’s ability to foster a lasting connection with the camp and its cause, as many professional alumni return as counselors and continue volunteering years after they’ve graduated college.
“One of the most telltale things about camp is that it has such a great influence on the counselors that alumni keep coming back,” Merrill said. “A lot of them are now in busy careers, and they take their vacation time from their jobs to come back and volunteer.“
The camp is funded by ASUCD from a combination of fundraising, company grants and student fees, as $1.50 from every student is given annually to Cal Aggie Camp to keep it up and running.
“Cal Aggie Camp is funded in part by ASUCD and company grants. We are always trying to find ways to raise more money since the camp is free for the children, and the more money we raise means more kids can go to camp,” said Wendy Wang, a first-year UC Davis graduate student who is returning for her fourth year as a camp counselor.
Wang, who is better known as “Weezy” by her fellow campers, is one of the many counselors to attest to the “life changing” experience that Cal Aggie Camp has on those who gets involved.
“Two weeks seem like such a short amount of time, but the experience of Cal Aggie Camp really makes an impact on the counselors, just as much as the campers,” she said. “I learn so much from the kids; whenever life seems too hectic and hard, just thinking of the campers and what they have gone through helps make me put life in perspective and realize that things really aren’t so bad.“
Applications for counselors, lifeguards and kitchen staff are available now at the ASUCD office on the third floor of the Memorial Union. They are due on Feb. 13.