Volunteers for UCLA’s student charity train in Malibu

The leadership council of UCLA UniCamp held their retreat at the home of Suzan and Rey Cano. Thirty-one UCLA students who volunteer their time as counselors at Unicamp, the nation's oldest and larger camp for underserved youth, held team building and training sessions for the camp's leadership council. Contributed Photo

The nation’s oldest summer camp for underserved children was born right here in Los Angeles County at UCLA. Unicamp, started in 1934, is the official philanthropy project of UCLA students. This past weekend 31 UCLA students were hosted at a Malibu residence to begin training for next summer’s 2023 session.

The students, all volunteers, camped out at the home of Rey Cano, a 30-year Malibu resident who’s also been a longtime board member for Unicamp. The young adults are preparing months before the summer session to learn team building and leadership.

Some 1,200 kids from usually urban communities come to spend happy times at Unicamp each summer. The leafy campgrounds, located in River Glen just outside Big Bear, offer a much-needed respite to the concrete jungle familiar to many participants. Throughout its decades of operations even some Malibu children have attended along with kids from the local Boys & Girls Club.

Campers between the ages of 10 to 17 are eligible to take part. The younger children’s programs are separate from those of the teenagers who might be comfortable in more challenging activities such as rock climbing and backpacking. Those 10 to 14 typically are treated to classic camp activities like archery, arts and crafts, rope climbing, swimming, and mountain biking, activities typically not available to them during the school year.

Kira McLean just graduated from UCLA and even though she is pursuing a graduate degree, she is still continuing her volunteerism for Unicamp. This is her third year. The 22-year-old participated virtually the first year when camp went online due to the pandemic. 

“We did follow along activities like making slime using shampoo and flour; things we’d expect most people to have on hand,” she said.

In her second summer, McLean, whose camp name is “Tigerlily,” was a head counselor in-person. In 2022, she organized a week of camp. 

“We focused on social and emotional learning and making sure campers knew that they had the opportunity to be inherently great.” said McLean, whose session partnered with Compton Unified School District. 

McLean said she she wanted to give back. 

“I grew up in a single-parent, low-income family from the Antelope Valley,” she said. “I think summer opportunities and extra-curricular activities aren’t as accessible to low-income students.” 

McLean plans on staying with Unicamp as a director and training the next leadership team of volunteers.

“We’re dedicated to serving underserved youth from the greater Los Angeles area and providing them with a week of summer camp,” she said. “We’re a nonprofit organization, so all our students do this as volunteers. And the students help fundraise to subsidize the cost of camp. This organization is very near and dear to my heart.”

Another volunteer counselor, Antonio Guereca, is known as “Todoroki” at camp. The 26-year-old graduated from UCLA in 2019 and is now a grad student at Loyola Marymount. Guereca says Unicamp volunteering shifted his trajectory in school from biochemistry to education. He’s pursuing a counseling degree to work in schools. 

“I myself am an LAUSD student,” he said. “This was the first time I myself got an opportunity to just explore the wilderness, experience summer camp and go through the transformation a lot of the kids go through at a different capacity obviously.

“The kids come in with a different skill set, ways of perceiving life, and different values, but once you give them space to just be kids and enjoy themselves, run around and not worry about the pressures of social media and presenting themselves in a certain way, one week is enough to realize ‘yeah I am good enough. I don’t have to worry about what people think of me.’ They step into their greatness.”

Guereca said seeing the effect it has on the students after it’s done is gratifying.

“At closing campfire there’s a lot of happy tears because they feel such a sense of fulfillment,” he said. “I wish I had a program like that growing up. Being in a position to give back to these kiddoes who may come from communities that I did, who resemble where I came from, means the world.”

Cano explained a Unicamp tradition is that all campers and counselors choose their own camp name. 

“The most resonating story I’ve heard was one camper chose to be called ‘Smart.'” he shared. “All week at camp, every person must be referred to by their camp name. Finally, someone asked why the camper chose to be called ‘Smart’ and his/her answer was that no one ever called him/her ‘Smart’ in downhill life. So, that week he felt special and his/her self-esteem grew immensely.”

To donate, go to unicamp.org