Summer months often lead to idle time for young middle and high school students. And with budget cuts to summer school programs, and costly camps out of reach for many parents, too much free time can translate into trouble.
But for 250 kids, based in the Wilmington and Harbor Gateway areas, this summer could be the beginning of seeing a new, bright future. From July 7 – August 1, sponsored kids will storm the campus of Cal State Dominguez Hills and attend sessions in fitness, academics, art, team-building, service and beyond, all courtesy of an instrumental nonprofit in the area known as Sharefest.
Sharefest, entering its 11th year of existence under the leadership of Executive Director Chad Mayer, serves the community in many ways with a focus on mentoring youth, fostering volunteerism in the community, and establishing working coalitions made up of city leaders, schools, businesses and the faith community.
Sharefest launched their Youth Development Academy in 2007 with just 35 campers. Over the last seven years, the academy, which offers academic and extracurricular opportunities to underserved middle and high school students throughout the County, has grown to 250 kids.
The program is free, including bus transportation from the kids’ local schools, and it places them on a college campus for one of the two, two-week sessions.
“It’s a great environment to bring the kids,” said Mayer, who noted the campers not only get access to the campus, but are also able to interact with some of the professors and students as well.
“Sharefest definitely opened doors for me,” said Jose Sanchez, now a YDA counselor and full-time student at the University of California Santa Barbara. “Going into camp that first summer, I was not a talkative kid, but in just a few weeks I learned to ask questions, be open to meeting new people and the importance of being a leader by volunteering in your community.”
Sanchez, who fondly recalls spending time in the Cal State Dominguez pool racing against new friends, enjoyed two summers as a YDA camper, two more as a junior counselor, and now is a full-fledged counselor for the program.
The aspiring math teacher, on track to be the first college grad in his family, says the exposure to the college campus life in those formative years helped him see new possibilities for his future.
“All of the counselors were college students, and they were so great about encouraging us to look at schools and tell us about how fun and amazing college can be,” Sanchez says.
Mayer says he is firm believer in identifying the right resources to support the campers.
“We recruit the best talent to pour into these kids,” said Mayer. “They are surrounded by counselors who believe in them, encourage them, and are constantly delivering positive affirmations and high-fives.”
Steve Tedesco, the YDA Program Manager, added that in addition to the various sports and classes, high school students are able to make several college visits to local schools like UCLA, Pepperdine and Cal State Long Beach, and meet with admissions counselors. They additionally make some field trips to local city offices to learn about professional opportunities and life, and all kids will enjoy an Dodger game.
“In two weeks, lives are changed,” said Tedesco. “The feedback I hear from parents is that they cannot wait for their kids to attend this camp.”
Both of the summer sessions culminate with a community service project. This year, the kids will upgrade and clean the Toberman House, a neighborhood center for harbor-area families in need, painting murals and benches, helping out in the food pantry, creating a Welcome Center and packing backpacks for underserved kids.
“When these kids leave here, we want them not only to benefit from the leadership they received, but also know what it means to give back,” said Mayer. “We want them to see a bigger world, beyond just their current circumstances and neighborhood.”
Mayer says his goal is to continue to grow the number of camper slots each summer.
“I would take 1,000 campers if I could,” he said. “The Cal State Dominguez campus is certainly large enough, but we need the funding to offer more spots.”