When 60 inner-city kids are dropped off at Big Turtle Village summer camp in Devil’s Hopyard State Park in East Haddam this summer, they’ll be looking forward to hikes in the wilderness, late night camp fires and diving into a water hole oasis. But when they leave, they’ll take away more than just memories of sleeping in tents and making s’mores – they will have learned priceless lessons about life.
The free summer camp, founded by Rafael Ramos, is put on by New Haven’s JUNTA for Progressive Action, and is now in its 13th year. The camp has grown from a small operation of about a dozen campers to consistently filling up its 60 slots, many of them Latinos. Thanks to Ramos’ tireless volunteer efforts, kids who would normally spend their summer in the sweltering city heat, eyes glued to an Xbox or iPhone, get a week-long respite experiencing all Connecticut’s natural surroundings have to offer.
Completely volunteer-run, the camp allows children and teenagers whose families cannot afford a typical summer camp the same “camp” atmosphere and experience.
Big Turtle Summer Camp was born from an existing program Ramos was involved with, where kids would go on a day trip to Six Flags.
“I thought that was sort of a waste of resources,” Ramos admitted. The excitement for the Six Flags trip was short-lived, but he believed bringing a group of inner-city kids to experience a camp out in the natural environment would be more lasting and meaningful.
More than a decade later, the camp has grown from a meager 15 campers to having to turn some people away. Sixty kids is a good number, Ramos said, but adding on any more would take away from the person experience the kids get.
Along with a growing number of campers, the camp now offers a wider breadth of workshops that are relevant to daily life, life nutrition, exercise, food conservation and natural vegetation. Ramos said he tries to keep the workshops fresh each year for returning campers.
At night, they star gaze, hoping to spot the elusive flash across the sky, so typically hidden by the city lights.
Even though the campers spend time learning about their natural environment, they are really learning about themselves, he said. And most importantly, he added, it’s an experience they would not normally get.
“[The campers] don’t typically have the opportunities or the resources to have a natural experience like this. This is an experience that leaves a life-long impact on a kids.”
No technology allowed
There is one thing Ramos is adamant about: there is no technology allowed at camp. Campers turn in their iPods, cell phones and all other digital devices once they arrive. For five days, they do something almost unheard of — they unplug.
“These are city kids and with the proliferation of all the electronics and games and devices, kids don’t really have chance to get into themselves or their friends any more,” he said. “Kids have the chance to be kids again.”
Some are resistant at first, he said, but they learn that there is more to life than texting and video games. Without the confines of needing to be constantly connected to the outside world, they tune in to their natural surroundings. With eyes drawn away from an LED screen, they find themselves examining the mysteries of nature.
Ramos is not the only one instilling life lessons for campers to carry on with them. Volunteers like Dave Hiser, a specialist on nocturnal animals, donate their time to teach workshops throughout the week.
During a previous session, Hiser taught the campers how they have tools and skills they never realized they had through a lesson on owls and night vision. He took them out into the dark woods with their flashlights and made them turn them off for three minutes.
Once their eyes adapted to the darkness, Ramos recalled how the collectives “oohs” and “ahhs” when they realized they could see more in shades of greys and blacks than the limited rays of the flashlights.
“They learned to recognize [their night vision] and appreciate how their bodies reacted,” he said.
The kids had learned that they don’t always need outside help – they held all the tools they needed to make it on their own, and that is what Ramos hopes sticks with them.
Volunteers essential to Big Turtle Village’s success
Gloribell Lopez has spent the last decade volunteering with Big Turtle Village. A friend of Ramos’, they were both working for the City of New Haven when she began to donate her time to the inner-city kids’ camp experience.
“I went up and stayed with the kids and I was amazed,” she said. Even though watching them deal with the first few nights without parents, technology and first-world amenities were tough, she said seeing them acclimate to their surroundings was an experience in itself.
Some kids take to the outdoors easier than others, she explained. Some adapt right away, getting their hands dirty examining bugs and catching frogs, while others struggled with the bumps in the night and lack of indoor plumbing. But after a few days, everyone falls into a rhythm, she said.
She now helps every year from the planning stages, organizing everything from the budget and supplies to lining up workshop presenters and permits.
Despite going on more than ten years, the spirit of the camp is authentic as it was since its inception, Lopez said. And every year, her favorite activity is making the hike to the water hole.
“Every year its a little different, we’re all certain that we know the way, but it’s a big forest and often there’s twists and turns,” she said. “It’s one of the best times because as the kids are hiking they’re sing songs and being their normal selves. Then they get to jump in. . . They’re out there completely enveloped by nature and having the time of their lives.”
Seeing a group of kids who otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to experience nature with the sun beaming down on them, laughing without a care in the world – that is what Lopez values the most.
But providing that opportunity takes time and effort, and Lopez said she hopes more adults become involved with the program. What people don’t understand is that the kids are able to attend for free because the supervising adults are not paid, she said.
“We find donations, often we take time out of our own schedules, we buy our own supplies and go out of our way to find anything we can to make this camp possible.”
Big Turtle Village is accepting applications and the camp runs from July 22 to July 25. To learn more about JUNTA at “Big Turtle Village” or to become a volunteer, please contact Cheila Serrano at (203) 787-0191 or Cheila.Serrano@juntainc.org.