Help youth create communities of respect

 
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Salvador, 5th year Occupational Therapy student
Salvador, 5th year Occupational Therapy student

 Salvador, a rising senior at the Dominican University of California, went to camp in 2010, as a junior at Los Altos Hill High School.

Here's his story about Camp Everytown is not just a four-day experience, but a journey of a lifetime...

      Some say that a single moment can change your life forever. Others say that leaders are made not born. And to some degree, I agree with both of these statements. I loaded onto the bus and scanned for an open seat as I walked towards the back. There were a couple, "hey," "how's it going?" and an occasional, "Are you ready?" as I found an open seat. The doors of the bus closed and our trip to camp started. I could hear the wind blowing as we drove down the freeway--that would be the last time we would sit in silence for the next four days. None of us knew what to expect--we had heard a few things from past students, but they all ended in "I don't want to give it away, you'll see for yourself." I prepared myself to cry, laugh, sing and anything else I had been advised to do so, but nothing would prepare me for the next 4 days and 3 nights at camp.

      What I can tell you is that Camp Everytown is only going to be a positive experience if you allow it to be--only if you attend with an open mind, if you participate in the activities that are asked of you, if you reflect everyday on these real issues and their real presence in our school and in our community. Camp Everytown will allow you to grow as a person, will bring you close to others attending camp and will strike your heart and mind in a way that will motivate you to change the world that surrounds you and stand up for others. At Camp Everytown you will embrace diversity, come into contact with opposing views, will feel exposed and may even walk with your heart on your sleeve. But know that is exactly the experience at camp and it is necessary. Know also that it is almost impossible, to shield your emotions because you will connect with your classmates and the staff at camp on a deep level, just like I did, almost 5 years ago.

       I made it my mission to attend camp whole-heartedly and keep an open mind. That turned out to be the best thing that I could have done. By the end of the first day, my classmates and I were competing to see who could meet everyone first and who could name everyone in the group. By the second day, we were sharing our goals for the next academic school year. And by the end of the third, I was not at camp with strangers anymore; I was at camp with my extended family. I'm not going to say that there weren't activity that I would have preferred not to be a part of. I do not regret the things that I shared because it brought me closer to those at camp, but it also made me feel exposed, in a way that I had only done so to a few friends in the past. And through it all, the talks that I had with my cluster group, the late night conversations in the cabins, the time that I fell and stepped right into the creek and when I shared my family's story with others, I would not change anything about my camp experience. And to be honest, the activities that focused on breaking barriers, like gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and income shined light onto these topics and united us as a cluster of students. As we returned home on Saturday afternoon, we all felt empowered, connected, invincible and like a family. Unfortunately, days after returning from camp, my classmates--the people that I had attended camp with--the people that I know called my extended family, started to turn a blind eye and acknowledge me less in front of their friends. I realized our time at camp had ended.

        I realized that everything that I had learned at camp were tools that I had to apply to my own life. I realized that camp was more than just crying, singing and a break from school. I realized that camp was a summit--a meeting place for leaders, thinkers, hard workers and individuals. It was a place for us to come and share our stories with others, not because it was an activity that we participated in, but because it allowed us to find similarities--similarities in our struggles, in our dreams and in our passion to change the world around us. And even thought back on campus, we returned to our labels of jocks, nerds, beaners, and rich kids, we were all connected in a way that would be impossible to break.

      Five years later, the love that I hold for camp is still much alive. I look back through pictures of us in the cabins, exploring the woods, singing around the fire and playing the piano. I carry my hug on my lanyard as a constant reminder of what I did at camp and the promise that I made to myself and to everyone else at camp. I promised to start everything with an open mind, to not judge others on their appearances or actions because they are more than just what meets the eye, to be proud of who I am and my culture, and most importantly to embrace diversity and contribute to the wellbeing of my community and those that surround me.

     Camp Everytown has forever changed my life. I owe it to the organization and to my high school for allowing me to attend the program. I owe it to my classmates and past alum that contributed to my pleasant stay at camp. And overall, I owe it to myself for deciding to attend because it was my experience that motivated me to change the world that surrounded me through volunteer work, summer jobs and studying to become the first in my family to graduate from college.

Remember, "there is strength in the differences between us...because I know there is comfort where we overlap." ~Ani DiFranco. 

Excerpt from Val, a Camp Everytown alum:

I want to thank Silicon Valley Faces for inviting me here today to share a collection of significant memories that have shaped me into the woman I am today. My memories of Camp Everytown are still near and dear to my heart because I have experienced, first hand, its power to positively impact lives.

Ten years ago, I said farewell to my predominantly Latino neighborhood in East San Jose, California and moved north to the big city by the bay, San Francisco, where I currently live and work as a multi-media storyteller. Behind every smile there’s a secret - and when a child walks around holding one as big as mine - they can feel ALONE, VOICELESS, TRAPPED IN A BOX with no open doors and very little light. As a child who moved frequently, because of my father’s inability to consistently support his family, it was hard to keep and make new friends. Freshmen year at Independence High School, I felt lost amongst a sea of thousands of wandering students.

One morning, a boy turned around and asked me, “Why are you so quiet?” Shocked and offended by his question, I wanted to shout at the top of my lungs, “I have a lot on my mind,” but embarrassed I instead gave an awkward smile, shrugged and didn’t say a word. I grew up defined by a family secret, so much so, I thought if people knew who I was and where I came from, they wouldn’t accept me. But as I grew older I realized my family wasn’t the only one with problems.

In the spring of my Junior year, I was one out of 100 Independence High School students invited to Camp Everytown. In this new environment, nerves first overwhelmed me, but I soon learned to exit my comfort zone and allow others to get to know the real me by sharing my voice.

In one memorable small group discussion, we were asked to make a human sculpture of our family and to describe it. No one had asked about my family life before, so at first I wasn’t sure how much to say. When it was my turn, tears began to fill my eyes as I placed my father in a far corner on the other side of the room. Everyone sat respectfully as they listened to my trembling, novice voice reveal my family’s secret for the first time. I took a deep breath and proceeded to tell a story. Late one night when my father was sleeping, my mother finally built up her courage and told my brothers, sister and I to quickly gather our belongings. Breathless and not looking back, with only the full moon shining on us, we ran away from my father’s paranoid and monstrous behavior. Living with him had been like a nightmare I could never wake up from. After my story, with every hug I received, I felt so thankful that Camp Everytown gave me a place to speak honestly and openly about my personal family experiences. Surrounded by people I no longer saw as strangers, but as new friends I trusted, I began to feel safe and accepted. I no longer felt alone or isolated from my classmates; Camp Everytown taught me that everyone has hardships and has equally powerful stories to share.

In a short amount of time, Camp Everytown became a place where empathy melted judgment and unfamiliar faces became family. On our last day, we stood shoulder to shoulder in a circle of diversity, but in the end, all we saw was commonality. We were all human, united by our shared experiences and by our new desire to make the world a better place one step at a time.

Camp Everytown was a life changing, transformative experience that ignited a spark inside me. Since it taught me how to be aware of myself and of the bigger world around me, I returned home inspired to make change. The following school year, I became a Camp Everytown Club officer and returned to camp to help spread awareness of respect, acceptance and appreciation of diversity across my high school campus. Later, I grew committed to understanding and helping different cultures internationally. After I studied media production at the University of San Francisco, a school with a strong social justice mission, I volunteered with the Peace Corps in Macedonia to exchange cultures and to teach 4th-8th grade students how to communicate in the English language with confidence. And soon, I’m off to earn a master’s degree in International Education at NYU, with plans to design children’s arts programs that bridge cultures through storytelling. From the lessons learned at Camp Everytown, I strive to capture beauty in diverse cultures, be a voice for social justice and work with non-profits that help empower women and children all over the world.

I believe that Camp Everytown’s message will ripple effect and gradually reach the rest of our global society to create harmony. The more we take the time to understand the diverse cultures around us, the more we work together towards a peaceful, sustainable community. I was an emotionally wounded child terrified to share my voice, but Camp Everytown showed me light for a brighter future outside of my box. Thank you Camp Everytown.

Amy on a service trip in Nicaragua
Amy on a service trip in Nicaragua

"I'm bringing back to my community what I learned from Camp... including people, helping people, not judging, and standing up for myself and others."

These are the words that Amy, a senior at Mountain View High School, wrote in her college application essay to describe how Camp Everytown changed the way she perceives others.

Born in China, adopted by Caucasian American parents, and raised in an interfaith family, Amy had multicultural experiences of her own to share. Like many high school students attending Camp, she was nervous but excited for the upcoming activities. 

Over the next four days she participated in a variety of exercises, ranging from topics such as racism to sexual orientation. One exercise gave students a simulated disability. Eating meals without the ability to see or with the use of only one arm was an enlightening experience. Another memorable activity involved responding to statements about violence, personal issues, and other stressful situations. Amy shares that it was "really emotionally intensive... [it] made me realize that we're not the only ones who have been going through hard times."

However, Amy revealed that the activity that held the greatest impact for her personally was focused on gender stereotypes. She described a tense atmosphere as the girls recounted the derogatory slurs they'd experienced. After the boys began to show their vulnerabilities, both "sides" felt more connected to and compassionate towards each other. This, among other eye-opening activities, was why Amy was inspired to write about her time at Camp Everytown. 

Amy is looking forward to college next year and contemplating a major in international business. Wishing you all the best, Amy! 

Amy at Camp Everytown
Amy at Camp Everytown

Before senior high school student, Pablo, attended FACES' Common Ground and Camp Everytown, he was an eighth grader who witnessed the change that these programs had on his older brother. 

Common Ground, a 4-day summer program asks incoming high school freshmen to come together before they embark on their journey through the next four years of their high school career. During the program, students commit to respecting one another and dissecting the way they form opinions of themselves and their peers. They are challenged to break down barriers that often divide them into cliques. They embrace their commonalities as well as understand the struggles that they all may face.

As a freshman, Pablo's older brother was a Counselor-in-Training at Common Ground. Pablo says that he was amazed when he and his brother both answered a personal family question the same way. He was shocked that he and his brother felt identically about their family dynamics and that they had never discussed it.

Stories from his classmates about what they had endured outside of school astounded him. Because of the stories that he heard, he is much more conscious of the words that he chooses to use and recognizes their impact. He admits that he formerly used derogatory words of which he is now ashamed. He expressed that if he has a daughter he wants to be a great father and will teach her self-worth.

Pablo was so changed by his first year at Common Ground that he decided to go to Camp Everytown and return to both programs as a Counselor-in-Training. He has stepped in as co-president of the Camp-inspired "Be the Change" club at Fremont High. "My goal is to come back in 10 years and see this club thriving."

Next year, Pablo is off to college to study mechanical engineering. We are so excited for him and know that he will do incredible things!

Links:

We first met Monica in 2010 at Camp Everytown. We were immediately taken by her enthusiasm and positive attitude. If she never mentioned it, you would never know that she suffers from an unknown viral infection in her brain, which led to legal blindness, full body numbness, and intermittent paralysis of her limbs that can last years.

However, Monica has never let her disability inhibit her. When she went to Camp the first time in 2010, she said that she was forced to face things that she had never dealt with. During the disability exercise, where students are given a simulated disability (eat lunch with one hand, no hands, or blindfolded), Monica was struck by the way her classmates reacted to the exercise. "Having 2 of the 3 disabilities that are simulated, I realized that people didn't understand that just because you have a disability, your life isn't over."

In need of volunteers, FACES reached out to Monica in 2011 to see if she would be able to help facilitate Camp. Her positive energy matched by her compassion, commitment, and strong work ethic made made her our Camp Everytown hero. Coming back as a leader, she was in a better place in her life. She felt more empowered to share her experiences with others. 

Monica says that her favorite part about Camp is "getting to hear the students' stories and seeing the changes in each and every one of them; they come in one way and walk out as a completely changed person". In May she joined our staff as the Camp Everytown Logistics Coordinator. "I am passionate about Camp and love what it stands for. FACES has provided a great support system - they are like family." 

Links:

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Brittany Tobar

San Jose, California United States

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