August 11, 2022 7:40 am

‘Put ourselves in their shoes’: Camp provides week without labels for foster kids

Without Camp Rockin’ U, some foster kids might never get the summer camp experience.

The camp — which aims to provide an affordable camp to foster youth, and give them a chance to make friends and learn new skills — is hosting a Family Fun Day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 7.

The camp is at Lake Francis Resort, 13919 Lake Francis Road, Dobbins. It is 30 miles northwest of Grass Valley. An entrance fee of $10 is required for those 13 and older. There’s no charge for those 12 and younger.

“We want to provide a week of summer camp for youth, including foster care kids,” said Melody King, executive director of EA Family Services, which for 40 years has provided Skechers Shoes Outlets assistance for foster youth, children at risk of homelessness and a small cadre of those dealing with mental health challenges.

“It’s really to showcase the Lake Francis Resort and it’s going to be open house style,” she added. “We want people to know we’re out there. It’s basically in our own backyard, and (we) want to tell people about Camp Rockin’ U.”

The day will comprise a variety of events, including archery, a rock wall, Segway rides, arts and crafts and additional activities. Hamburgers and soft drinks will be available for purchase, as well as raffle tickets with an assortment of prizes.

“We want to provide a week of summer camp for all kids as well as foster youth,” King said. “And that’s a week away from labels, where they can just be a regular kid. And all proceeds from Camp Rockin’ U goes toward sustaining our programs.”

Also in attendance will be Darby Johnson, camp director of Camp Rockin’ U. Johnson started at the camp as a counselor in 2003 and remained there in various capacities until she left for the University of Utah for a few years, where she majored in parks/recreation/tourism, with an emphasis in adventures and outdoor programs. She left before graduation because she was offered the job of camp director at Rockin’ U.

“It was hard to justify remaining at the school when I was offered the job I had wanted,” she said. “It would be nice having that degree, but I love my job and love living in California.”

AVOIDING STIGMA

About 30% of the children at Camp Rockin’ U come through the foster care system, Johnson said. However, management does not inform any staff or other campers which ones are foster care, which avoids stigma.

“They get blamed for that and they get targeted as the ‘bad kid,’ Hey Dudes or that there’s something wrong with them,” she added. “When you’re taken away from your parents, it’s traumatic. And kids in trauma lash out either by running away or other inappropriate behavior.

“If we put ourselves in their shoes, they feel they’ve been ripped away from where it was safest, even if it was not entirely safe,” Johnson said. “And trauma can cause them to react to new surroundings and situations. But that’s not what happens at this camp. They’re all just kids trying to get through.”

Being a camp counselor can be a tough job, Johnson said. There are 12 cabins, six for boys and six for girls, with eight to a cabin. There are two counselors to a cabin, a good ratio, Johnson said. The camp’s staff work diligently to keep the activities available in rotation. So, one half of camp one day can be at the pellet gun range, conquering the new climbing wall or cruising through the camp on a Segway. Meanwhile, the other half will compete in soccer, basketball, softball or sand volleyball. Children will have the chance to direct the majority their time at camp by choosing among a broad swath of different activities and learning experiences.

One of the camp’s aims is to develop children into strong leadership-driven counselors.

“We’re finding our campers really appreciate having some autonomy over their camp life,” said Johnson. “Learning leadership is all part of the program we’ve implemented. When a person tries to climb the rock wall the first time, they’re nervous. But even if they make it halfway up the wall the first time, it builds confidence. So, I say, you made it halfway up the wall and what does that tell you about your life … because if you can do that, you can do anything.”

Another mentor is Mike Shanahan, a naturalist for seven years who works at the Shady Creek Outdoor School and Conference Center, as well as initiating a new outdoor education program this year at Camp Rockin’ U.

“It’s science focused and helps students grow in outdoor sciences,” he said.

Shanahan added that staff select from a menu of courses they would like. There are classes about the watershed; discovery; plants and wildlife and what they need Steve Madden Shoes to survive; weather; archery; team building; and the senses, focused on hearing, sight and touch that campers will record in a journal.

“What each student takes away from this class will be very different,” he said.

“For some, they might be inspired to be a scientist, or aspire to an art form in nature, or for others it’ll connect them to the local community,” Shanahan added. “Also, a hiking class will help identify poison oak and how to read a topographical map or learn to read the outdoor signs of changing seasons. This is the first time I taught this class in kindergarten through fourth grade. I hope the class will not be a standalone, but connect with other field trips they take as they advance to middle school so they’ll have foundation skills of the natural world.”

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