How the all-American kid spends summer

11th August 1995 at 01:00
Every year seven million children in the United States are sent to camp and 7,000 young British people cross the Atlantic to watch over them. Clare Dean visited sites for youngsters from wealthy suburbs and for those from the ghettos. Pictures: Paul Salmon.

Under the shade of an old pine tree 11-year-old Adrian Lee Pettway crouches in anticipation. He lifts his hand from the ground and gasps in astonishment that four playing cards, all aces, have mysteriously appeared.

The hand he's been holding flat on the ground has not moved once, yet the aces certainly aren't the four cards placed there a minute ago.

"Wow, that was pretty cool," concedes the kid from Worcester, Massachusetts, in deference to Ricky Cox, a 21-year-old Londoner who is practising his magician's skills. "I just don't know how you moved those cards from under my hand."

Nine-year-old Connie Chu from Boston has her own theory: "I think you've got invisible cards that you just magic up and use for these tricks."

Adrian and Connie are campers - two of seven million children following the age-old American tradition of Summer Camp. Ricky is a camp counsellor - one of nearly 7,000 young adults from Britain now employed every summer to guide and entertain American youngsters through their long, hot vacations. Ricky is on a personal adventure too, sent by a Lewisham youth project, via Camp America, to raise his own self esteem and motivation.

He is one of six young people in the United States from Lewisham Youth Aid, a London borough project funded by Deptford City Challenge. It aims to channel working-class young people in positive directions and sees counselling jobs with Camp America as one route for transforming lives.

One hundred and sixty miles away with the temperature hitting the high 90s, eight girls sit silently in a classroom copying out words or reading to themselves. Ten boys in the nearby computer centre are learning to touch-type. While other kids seek fun in the sun, these children are working hard at lessons, using the summer months to try and overcome the dyslexia which affects them.

Fourteen-year-old Steven Layne from Brooklyn, New York, sits reading in the office of Diana Hanbury King, an Englishwoman, who founded a summer camp for dyslexic boys 40 years ago. Steven joined camp on June 24 with the reading age of a seven or eight-year-old - the second or third reading grade. Now he's moving up to the 10th grade, approaching the reading age of a 15-year-old.

"Obviously you mind a little that you have to study, but before I came here my mother said that it would be good for me and now I am seeing that it is. And when you graduate from a grade, it gives you real confidence to go on to the harder work you know that you are going to be given."

Summer camp is a phenomenon so woven into the fabric of American life that it is unthinkable not to do it. There are camps for fat kids - "lose 20 to 45 lbs in a fun-filled summer of recreation, weight loss and fitness" - camps for disabled, arty, sporty, Jewish, even Salvation Army kids.

Across the country are 12,000 camps, crossing all social boundaries from the ritzy private camps at Martha's Vineyard for the well-heeled children of the East Coast to the agency-run programmes for the children of the ghettos. They range from day to residential camps, with youngsters staying up to eight weeks in cabins, tents or teepees, and travel camps where the kids move between sites by hiking, riding or canoeing.

The emphasis is largely on having a good time but all camp leaders point to the educational angle - they are teaching youngsters how to live in a community and to learn respect for others.

In truth there are few specific education camps; one of the oldest is where Steven is learning to read - Dunnabeck at Kildonan school in 150 acres of beautiful countryside in Amenia, New York State.

In American schools, dyslexic children are often classified with mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed and physically handicapped pupils and put in the same classroom. Children at Dunnabeck get one-to-one tutorials as well as supervised study periods. They also go riding, swimming, work in a woodwork shop and art centre - activities selected because they are the ones dyslexic children tend to excel at.

Teaching techniques are based on the Orton-Gillingham approach, in which reading, writing and spelling are not treated as isolated subjects but as different aspects of language. Sounds of letters are learned first and then blended into words, to constitute reading and are then taken apart for spelling. Children are given standardised diagnostic tests at the beginning of the seven-week course and again at the end to assess their progress.

Diana Hanbury King has testimonies from past students that the school and summer camp have been a turning point in their lives. But there is a price - $5,000 or Pounds 3,333, although scholarships are awarded.

The price is not unusual, for summer camp is big business and children are more than willing to put pressure on their parents. Avra Zlotnick, 12, from New Jersey who is on a six-week programme at Camp Timber Tops, a private camp for girls in the Pocono Mountains, says: "I make my parents save all year to make sure they get enough money for me to come here."

Generally, fees range from Pounds 10 to Pounds 36 per day for camps run by non-profit organisations, youth groups and public agencies. The independent, privately-run can charge twice that - between Pounds 23 and Pounds 66 a day.

Camp America, the industry's biggest recruitment company, has been selecting international staff for summer camps for more than 25 years. British counsellors, minimum age 18, are paid between Pounds 100 and Pounds 433 for nine weeks depending on age and experience. Accommodation, meals and return flights are provided free.

It charges camps between Pounds 632 and Pounds 876 for the people it selects, last year made Pounds 2.3 million profit and this summer has sent more than 10,000 from 32 countries including the United States.

Summer camps bear full responsibility for children away from home and every camp director's nightmare is allegations of abuse by the counsellors who run activities. In Oregon a 10-year-old girl made claims that she was dragged from her cabin at 5am and abused. That camp has now closed.

Dennis Regan, vice-president and director of Camp America in the United States, says these "human type of things crop up now and again. It is unfortunate but usually the person is squeaky clean. We could have someone who is a knife-wielding child abuser, someone who is stalking these children, or a 10-year-old who is making up stories."

Camp America vets everyone it sends out, checking references and interviewing personally. This year, however, it could never have foreseen the problems Radek Jurcik, from the Czech Republic, would cause. He was working at the Roosevelt Country Day Camp in Perry, New York State, when he decided to swim across the Niagara River from the American side to meet friends in Canada.

Jurcik, 24, braved the volatile currents of the quarter-mile wide river after being denied entry into Canada because he lacked the proper visa, only to end up in the arms of immigration officers. He was thrown into detention, threatened with deportation, but is now back in camp where he has been training to be a swimming instructor.

Working in summer camp as a counsellor is a 24-hour-a-day job, rarely offering any privacy; with many camps based in woods there is also the wildlife to contend with - flies, mosquitoes, bears and even skunks which have been known to brave the verandah of a cabin.

Jan Henniker, director for Camp America Europe, says that she has seen many shy 18-year-olds "prise themselves away from Mum at the airport in June to return a couple of months later, tanned, confident and bursting with stories of their travels and experiences."

Counsellors say that patience is the virtue they all learn; what unites the camps for rich and poor is the affection all the children display for their counsellors. Camp America provides young adult workers for all types of camp from the privately-owned to those for deprived kids in which the Lewisham youth project workers have been placed.

Timber Tops, Pine Forest and Lake Owega in north-eastern Pennsylvania are private camps. Each stands in more than 300 acres of magnificent woodland adjoining thousands more of state forest. They share 24 tennis courts, each has at least one swimming pool as well as a lake used for swimming, canoeing and windsurfing. Parents of the 750 campers pay $5,000 (Pounds 3,333) for an eight-week camp. Trunks packed full of belongings arrive before the children, letters home are sent Federal Express but the words "Please" and "Thank you" still have to be taught, according to the English counsellors who work there.

"I think camp is a bargain," says Mitchell Black who now runs the camps started by his grandparents more than 60 years ago. "What else would the children have to do? It is also a great opportunity for parents too; they have time away from their children to travel and to get to know each other. It makes them appreciate each other more."

Horizons for Youth, where Ricky is based, is a non-profit camp for inner city kids from Boston. It is set in 300 acres of woodlands, wetlands, fields, meadows and sandy beach along Lake Massapoag in Sharon, Massachusetts. The surroundings bear little relation to the home life most campers leave behind for two weeks. Drug and alcohol abuse are common among families; swearing and fighting are prevalent.

Anthony Dominick Zavalia, a nine-year-old from Boston whose parents are divorced, says: "I guess my mom is happy I'm here because my brother and I fight all the time."

Sean Cavill, 22, from Plumstead and part of the Lewisham project, doesn't expect to change anyone's life but says "if you can make them think a little, that's great. I had a problem with a kid who was always fighting. One day he walked away from a fight, came and told me and it was brilliant. That is what you get out of this."

Ricky, who uses his magician's skills to build a rapport with campers, identifies strongly with them. "In my younger days I was pretty hard and when I see these kids react, I see myself. I try to lead them in the way I now lead myself."

Other Lewisham youngsters are at Camp Kiddie Keep Well, a camp for 183 children set in 13 acres in Roosevelt Park, Edison, New Jersey - 51 per cent have addiction or substance abuse in their families and problems of their own ranging from asthma to brain tumours. Some nine and 10-year-olds have never eaten with a knife or fork because they only eat fast food, while others do not know how to wash their hair. They often come to camp with no underwear and from homes where they have no adequate rest or sleep. Some sleep literally where they drop.

They are shown the outdoor life, swimming and sports, undergo medical checks, and are given nourishing food. Counsellors introduce new habits - regular showers, changing the bed sheets and brushing teeth.

Adrian George, 18, from Lewisham, says you don't hit or punish these kids. "That is what is done to them at home or school. The only way to change things and their minds is to discuss with them."

Elizabeth Wright, 19, on a work placement from Lincoln College at Camp Timber Tops - via Camp America - was mobbed by girls from her cabin on return from an overnight trip. They cuddled and kissed her, demanded to know all she had been doing, before breaking into camp songs complete with hand jives and rushing off to do their make-up for a baseball match which boys from Pine Forest would also be attending.

"Camp is just awesome," says 12-year-old Stephanie Rosenall from Pennsylvania. "We miss our parents, but they can visit."

It's a chance to make new friends says 12-year-old Lauren Herman, from New Jersey. "My parents are going to Bermuda - but only for five days. I am here for eight weeks so it wasn't a very difficult choice to make. What do English kids do?"

The Timber Tops daily programme

7.45am: Rise and shine.

8.10am: Line-up and flag-raising.

8.20am: Breakfast.

8.50am: Tidy cabins.

9am: Inspection.

9.30am to 12.30pm: Three activities, each lasting 50 minutes with 10 minutes in between. Typically, it might be a sequence of tennis lesson, swimming instruction, adventure climbing.

1pm: Lunch.

2.30pm to 4.25pm: Two activities: for example, ceramics, soccer.

4.25pm: General swim.

5pm: Shower 6pm: Line-up and flag lowering.

7pm: Evening activity. At 8pm, there is a get together at the lake. Join hands and sing "Day is done" 9.15pm: Lights out.

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