California – Los Angeles: UniCamp
A proud member of the spring 2016 graduating class, Isauro Meza-Rendon was committed to continuing his journey with UCLA. This is the third summer in which he has participated as a counselor for UCLA students’ official philanthropy, UniCamp. Established in 1934, UniCamp is an independently funded non-profit seeking to improve UCLA’s relationship with the Greater Los Angeles community. The camp annually attracts over 1,200 children from urban communities to participate in outdoor summer programs. With the help of 450 student volunteers, campers participate in a number of activities which provide a fun and impactful experience.
UniCamp offers two programs, one for children ages 10-14 and another for high school students aged 15-17. Isauro has experience with both, and this summer he participated in the high school session with students from Project Grad. Project Grad is a program structured around college readiness. Isauro facilitated a number of activities and programs oriented toward encouraging campers to think about their college careers, narrow their focuses, apply their interests to their studies, and imagine the college experience. Throughout the week, the students participated in group and one-on-one sessions that focused on their interests.
Camp sessions have weekly themes that include nutrition, physical and mental health, and college prep. In addition to running as a classic summer camp, the educational themes are integrated in the day’s activities. Campers leave with confidence and enthusiasm for college that are generated by the excitement throughout the week. Isauro describes these feelings as being unlike any other. Comments such as “This is the best experience of my life” and “I’m never going to forget this” are common, and the transformation of the children’s knowledge and happiness is evident.
Isauro loves to see what each kid gains from the UniCamp experience. He believes the camp’s impact on the campers’ leadership skills, self-acceptance, and perspective helps them feel more confident about accomplishing their long-term academic, career, and personal goals. Until the final day of camp known to the campers only as “Mr. Ranger,” Isauro helps motivate the children to shape their personal and professional paths, encouraging them to continue pursuing their goals despite any circumstances that may stand in the way – motivation rarely given to many of the participants. “You build connections. You tell them that it’s okay to ask for help and aim for goals,” Isauro says. “The kids often don’t have mentors, and the volunteers help fulfil that role.”
In addition to providing mentorship and guidance, UniCamp volunteers are trained to counsel children who have faced abuse or other personal struggles. The volunteers aim to create a safe and welcoming environment for children so that they feel comfortable enough to express themselves and share the challenges they’ve faced with their peers. The camp provides a positive experience for the children that they can always revisit regardless of any difficult challenges they may face back home. “There was one point in my life where I thought I couldn’t do it,” describes Isauro. His openness about his experience of self-doubt and insecurity allows the campers to feel comfortable speaking with someone who has experienced similar feelings.
Throughout the week-long camp, the kids participate in arts and crafts activities in which they are given yarn to create necklaces that are worn throughout their stay. This “bling,” as it’s referred to, is not allowed to be kept by the person who makes it. Instead, each camper gives their bling to someone they have grown close to or look up to. Isauro was honored to have received over 25 of these necklaces from campers. He remembers the happiness and gratitude he felt each time he was bestowed one of the campers’ necklaces or heard one of them say “You made such a difference in my life.” It is common for UniCamp to have a profound effect on a child.
During a camp session, Isauro grew to know a recent immigrant from Korea who told him about the intense academic and career pressures he felt in his home country. This, in addition to the student’s unfamiliarity with English, contributed to his initial disassociation from other campers, but as the week went on, he grew more confident. Isauro warmly remembers one moment in drama rotation when the camper was supposed to act as a space alien. Without the need to speak English, the camper approached the role with more fervor and enthusiasm than he had demonstrated with any other task all week. All the campers clapped and cheered him on as he performed. After that day, his confidence notably improved. By the end of the week, the camper had such a great time that it was difficult for him to say goodbye.
These relationships with the campers became even more meaningful at the end of the week when Mr. Ranger was allowed to reveal his true identity to the kids. To Isauro, this is the kind of work you do as a sociology major to break convention, and it’s the kind of work you do as a Bruin to make the world a better place.
If you are interested in participating in UniCamp, please visit unicamp.org.
The More You Know