Updated: Aug 5, 2019
For a lot of us, camping is a tradition that takes place when the weather heats up and the mountains around the Central Valley come alive to visitors who are looking to escape into nature.
Before we set off on our adventure, we make sure to have a reservation at our favorite campgrounds. We pull our tent out of that back corner of the garage where it rests most of the year, dust it off and make sure it’s black widow-free.
We put new batteries in our lanterns. We buy bundles of wood for a fire that we’ll cook hamburgers and hot dogs over. We make sure to pack clothing for warm days and cool summer nights.
But for some United Cerebral Palsy Central California students, camping can be a luxury.
Every June, a group of UCPCC students and staff make the trek to Merced County Office of Education’s Jack L. Boyd Outdoor School for a week-long excursion in Fish Camp, California.
While at Camp Mountain High, students play games and make craft projects. They even go on hikes to check out a nearby creek and teepees.
Students make tie-dyed bandanas, go on nature-focused scavenger hunts and make DIY ice cream in a bag.
Emily Mercado, student advisor, says at camp, students’ lives are so much less structured than when they’re going to class at the Fresno center. They get a lot more choice.
Like when campers asked Mercado and her husband, instructor Juan Mercado, to re-enact their May wedding.
“We did a fake wedding at the camp for the students because … it wasn’t like we could have all our students at our wedding, but they still wanted to be there,” Emily jokes.
Not their first campfire
UCPCC student Cicely has been to camp several times. “Five times. Maybe six or seven. I’ve skipped a few years.
“I enjoy the company,” she says. “Making new friends there. And I have other friends from other programs that goes.”
Cicely is a fan of … everything.
“The activities. Everything is fun.”
This year might have been exceptionally fun for Cicely. She and her boyfriend, another UCPCC student named LaShawn, got engaged.
LaShawn proposed to Cicely – “The most beautiful girl in the world,” he says, lovingly, at the Thursday night campfire, where he sang “Let’s Get Married,” by Jagged Edge.
“God must love brunettes because brunettes are the most beautiful women in the world,” LaShawn says. And wouldn’t you know: Cicely just happens to be a brunette.
This year was UCPCC student Jose’s second year.
What brought him back was the sense of camaraderie amongst campers and staffers alike.
“It was new to me last year, and now I know the routine and what to expect,” Jose says. “I like getting along with everybody.
“You have … something to keep you grounded. It could be music, faith – anything [here] that keeps you grounded.”
Staffers keep coming back, too
Student advisor Emily Mercado says a sign-up sheet goes up two months before camp for instructors to let directors know they’re interested in attending. This year, 12 staff members attended, helping 38 campers.
Some years, they’ve had to turn staffers away.
“We have to go based on ratio, based on how many UCP students are going,” Mercado says.
For instructors, working at camp is no different than a regular workday. The days are long and active, but still offer opportunities for instructors and students to enjoy being together outside the classroom atmosphere.
Instructor Juan Mercado has been to camp nine times.
“I like meeting the new students,” Juan says. “I have a bond with Eddie and Alan, which are two other students from another program.
“I like seeing our students be free up there – they have no worries, nothing pressuring them.”
For first-timer and instructor Crystal Gonzales, the best part of camp is enjoying the “little things.”
“You’re in cabins with them, so it is like a big sleepover with them,” Gonzales says. “They really enjoy the little things. Debbie was thrilled to have her hair braided.
“You get to see a whole other side of the students,” she adds.
Most campers and staffers agree it’s the meals served that everyone really talks about.
“The food!” Cicely says, about what her favorite thing about camp is.
“Oh, the food! I love the all the food!” agrees Jose.
Campers and instructors enjoy meals of pizza, enchiladas, turkey and mashed potatoes. For breakfast, it’s pancakes, French toast and sausage.
“We eat like every two hours,” Juan Mercado jokes.
How to help? Donate and volunteer
Emily Mercado says for most UCPCC students, camp is the only vacation they will go on in a year.
“We really take for granted how easy it is to just go camp,” Emily says. “A small donation - any little bit helps.”
There are opportunities for donors to sponsor students. The costs associated with running a camp like this vary from year to year, as do the costs for students to attend.
Kelly Cunningham, UCPCC director of adult programs, says businesses or individuals can help students get to camp by donating money for full or partial “camperships.”
Cunningham says what she wants people to understand is how special a week at camp is for people with disabilities.
“They’re away from their family; they’re away from the rules in which they live under,” Cunningham says. “They’re out of their routine, which is kinda the same every day.”
UCPCC Executive Director Roger Slingerman says the mission of camp is to help students experience something they wouldn’t get in their daily lives.
“They eat camp food, go out in nature,” Slingerman says. “They get the true camping experience.”
And camp isn’t just for UCPCC students. UCPCC transports students from other programs, like ARC, as well.
Not only is student sponsorship available, volunteers are encouraged to attend, too.
This year, there weren’t as many volunteers as in past years because camp was held the first week of June, when most schools are still in session.
Emily Mercado started with UCPCC as a volunteer when she was 16 years old.
“I remember the first time I was going to camp, I was sitting there freaking out thinking, ‘Can I do this?’ ” Mercado says. “Then I got to talking with them (the students) and realized, I was fine.”
Mercado says there’s always this misconception that people who work with people with special needs and disabilities are angels.
“We started out the same way you did, we just took the leap,” Mercado says.
All good things come to an end
Now the campers and instructors are back.
They’re in class, working on art projects and cooking in the UCPCC kitchen.
But that camp camaraderie is close by.
“You’re having to be employees first when we’re at center,” Emily Mercado says. “But at camp, we get to create friendship bonds.”