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.”