United in Harmony is a non-profit, non-sectarian organization that was established in 1989 as a response to homelessness and poverty facing children in our community. United in Harmony’s mission is to provide impoverished children with hope and opportunities. United in Harmony’s overnight-camp program (Camp Harmony) is designed to help children develop positive self-esteem and to thereby inspire and empower campers in their future endeavors. At Camp Harmony, children grow through interactions with teenage and adult role models while experiencing nature, exploring arts, sports, and an array of other enriching activities. [Description and images from the United in Harmony website]
I first came to Camp Harmony back in 1999. It was a breezy Friday in late July, midway through the weeklong summer camp. My plan was simply to visit with my father for the afternoon to see if I wanted to be more involved the following year. That all changed, however, once I got to camp and saw the amazing program and the incredible impact it has on the lives of the underprivileged children it serves.
There is a narrow gully that snakes its way down the middle of Camp Hess Kramer, the residence camp just off of PCH near the LA and Ventura border, where Camp Harmony is held. Spanned by half a dozen bridges, this slender creek stretches out the distance between locations, with the dining hall and most of the activity areas at one end, and the cabins and campfire area at the other.
As my father and I drove into camp, we found the main volunteer coordinator sitting on one of these bridges, reaching through the metal railing, clutching a young girl who claimed she wanted to jump (don’t worry folks, it’s only about five feet to the dry riverbed below). Everything worked out fine. Still, what a start, right?
My second camp experience (occurring literally within seconds of the first) was assisting a pair of counselors with a runaway camper. As I made my way towards the cabins, I looked up to discover a young boy barreling down on me at top speed. Over fifty yards behind, his two counselors gave chase, yelling, “Stop that kid!” as they hurried to catch up.
Normally, you’re not supposed to grab a kid, but a kid running from his counselors warrants action. I jumped in the way, wrapped my arms around the kid, and sank to the ground where I waited for his counselors to catch up (thoroughly gratefully and even more thoroughly out of breath).
It took nearly ten minutes to calm the kid down and convince him that trying to hitch a ride on PCH was not the solution to homesickness. For lots of people, that time might have also been spent pondering questions like, “What have I gotten myself into?” and “How soon can I leave?” But, despite the rough start, I knew there was something special about Camp Harmony––something that, even in its darkest hour, makes it a magical place to be and an amazing program to be a part of.
Unlike that kid, the thought of running away never crossed my mind. See, I knew that these kids weren’t truly having a bad time, they just didn’t know how to deal with the myriad of emotions rushing through them. At Camp Harmony, kids who often face extreme hardships in their daily lives get a chance to escape from these challenges and just be kids.
For them, relocating to a rural environment filled with trees, birds, and other small animals, can feel like being transported to an alien planet. Thankfully, the high school kids who act as counselors do a fantastic job keeping the campers engaged and excited. Meanwhile, support staff (adult volunteers like me) help run various programs, such as swimming, basketball, arts & crafts, cooking, drama, soccer, and many, many more.
While the daily activities are fun, meals are by far the biggest highlight of camp. For kids who often don’t get enough to eat at home, three healthy meals a day is a big deal. Taco dinner is always a big hit, as is spaghetti, and the barbeque chicken. However, pizza night definitely steals the show. There’s even a pizza song that all the kids know by heart and sing constantly during camp.
That night at dinner, I told the volunteer coordinator that not only was I not scared off by the day’s drama, but that I wanted stay the night rather than return home with my father as planned.
Having come straight from work, I had on a dress shirt, slacks, and loafers––all of which made me ill equipped for camp. Thankfully, my father had an old pair of tennis shoes (two sizes too small), and a spare jacket in the trunk of his car. I ditched the shoes within the hour (my toes couldn’t handle the pressure), but the jacket served me well.
Not expecting me to sleep over, they gave me a room that evening with no linens, towels, or sheets. I didn’t want to bother anyone (I figured the day had been long enough), so I balled up the jacket to use as a pillow and took down the cloth shower curtain to use as a blanket. It definitely wasn’t the best night’s sleep, but waking up at camp the next morning was well worth it.
That was nearly fifteen years ago. While some days have come close, none have ever been quite as drama-filled as that very first breezy summer afternoon. Most of the time, camp is an absolute blast––full of laughter and joy, and all the excitement and wonder of a typical summer camp, amplified by the deep appreciation the campers have for such a unique experience. It’s so amazing, in fact, that Camp Harmony has expanded to include not only a second location run simultaneously alongside the first, but also the three-day winter camp I just attended.
Since that first summer, I’ve missed just one camp (I was out of the country doing volunteer work with tsunami victims in Thailand). Why, you might ask, am I so committed to Camp Harmony and its staff? Take a look at the video posted below and I’m sure you’ll understand.
But first, from United in Harmony’s website:
- All activities and programs are offered free of charge to needy children
- Needy children have attended United in Harmony programs from over 18 different agencies
- Camp Harmony reaches over 700 children a year
- Many needy campers return to Camp Harmony year after year
- 300 high school volunteer counselors sign up for Camp Harmony sessions annually
- Volunteer counselors attend from over 40 different high schools
- Over 100 volunteer counselors are part of United in Harmony’s Leadership Program (a post-camp program that enables counselors to maintain relationships with campers, through monthly engagements with various agencies throughout the year)
- Summer counselors have the opportunity to continue relationships formed with campers by applying to the Leadership program. Leadership meets twice monthly throughout the school year.
- All programs operate with a 100% volunteer work-force
- Eighty-Five cents of every dollar raised goes directly to providing programs, materials and necessities for the children we serve.