It's common to remember where we were when important events took place, the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger disaster, the attacks of 9/11. By the summer of 1969, my imagination had long been captivated by America's space program. But by the time mankind first set foot on the moon I had willingly exchanged a seat in front of television at home for a regular summer activity. I was going to camp; I had an appointment with the stars that I wouldn't miss for the world -- not even for the moon.
Camp Bloomfield was established in 1958 and sits on 40 scenic acres in the coastal Santa Monica Mountains near Malibu, Calif. It was started by Norm Kaplan, the founder and mainstay behind the Junior Blind of America, then called the Foundation for the Junior Blind. The land use was made possible through the generosity of Henry Bloomfield, whose grandson still maintains the property and lives there year-round.
In the early days of camp, our contact with Norm was at each evening's campfire, where he served as a congenial master of ceremonies. He didn't mix much with campers in their daily activities. But his aloofness, to say nothing of his deep, textured voice, only added to his paternal mystique. You didn't see him a lot but you liked knowing he was around. The campers revered Norm Kaplan. Since his retirement in the 1980s there have been other camp directors. In recent years the baton has passed to an experienced and capable hand.
Frank Cardenas started volunteering at Junior Blind of America about 20 years ago. He was added to the payroll in 1998, and has been the director of recreation services for the last six years.
For most of the year Cardenas is in charge of a program called Visions: Adventures in Learning. From October through May, he leads groups of teens on three- and four-day excursions as they hike, river raft, and snowboard their way through California and other western states. He's also responsible for orchestrating special events from the Halloween Carnival to the Junior Blind Olympics in spring. Cardenas took time from his lively schedule to talk with me about the focal point of his summers: the Camp Bloomfield of today.
Long before Cardenas packs his bags and trades his Los Angeles office for three months of fresh air and sunshine, the hard work of preparation begins. Each year, Cardenas makes it a point to hire 12 to 14 staffers from outside the United States. "Then there's the staff that live in the States," he says. "They apply for activity positions like archery, arts and crafts, lifeguard positions, wrangler positions. I hire 11 male and 11 female counselors. I also hire a registered nurse. They go through an interview process. If they can come to the Los Angeles office, I meet with them. If not, I'll have a video interview on Skype. We check references and do background checks. They go through an intensive paperwork packet where they sign on to all the policies we have here at the Junior Blind. So it's pretty intense."
Cardenas puts his new staff through a solid week of concentrated learning. "We train with them six to seven days. During that training they learn the basics, the characteristics of working with the sighted kids and the blind kids. They learn all the policies and procedures. They do group games to get to know each other. They learn emergency procedures, first aid and CPR. We also have the staff participate in blindfold exercises, whether that's having their meals blindfolded, or organizing their stuff in the cabin to change and dress so they can learn just a little bit about not having vision. They kind of go through a session as if they were campers so when the session starts there are really no surprises."
To accommodate the different needs and interests of various groups, summer camping is divided into eight separate sessions. There are sessions for grade school kids, middle-schoolers, high-schoolers, adults, and families. Although the majority of campers are from California, all are welcome. Cardenas says, "We get kids, families too, from Nevada and as far away as New York and Chicago."
Any given session may include swimming, tandem bicycling, judo, wrestling and goalball. "We offer horseback riding," says Cardenas. "We do the climbing wall. We have archery, with oversized targets and beepers. We have 10 or 12 targets out there so a whole cabin will go at the same time. We have arts and crafts with oversized beads. They tie-dye their shirts; they do paints; I mean, you name it."
No two days are alike, and the summer is filled with special events, which take place in and outside of camp. Cardenas and his team make good use of California's incomparable coastline and abundant natural resources. Minutes from the Pacific Coast Highway, it's sand, surf, and sunscreen when camp heads out for beach day. "We take one group of kids to Marina Del Rey to do deep sea fishing with the California Yacht Club," Cardenas explains. "We also take them for a golf clinic at the naval golf course. We take them out to Lake Arrowhead and do waterskiing."
Another long standing camp tradition is Christmas in July. "We have a bunch of volunteers that help set up. We bring the snow in and we make the campfire into a little scene with a bunch of ice and Santa. When the kids go back to their cabin there'll be gifts on their beds." The gifts come courtesy of Jakks Pacific, a toy company with an international reach and a robust philanthropic outreach.
Campers are organized into groups, each with its own counselor. Typically several groups are assigned to a cabin. Generally, every day begins and ends in the same way: inspection in the morning and campfire at night. Immediately after breakfast the cabin, bathroom included, as well as each camper's personal belongings must be made shipshape and ready for inspection. At the end of each session the winning cabin earns the Golden Plunger Award. Evening campfire is a time for singing, for skits and storytelling. Each group, each camper is encouraged to participate, no matter how passively. It's a time to pull together, to enjoy some creativity and have a lot of fun.
What does the future hold for Camp Bloomfield? Cardenas wants a serious music program and more. "We would definitely like to see a nature center of some kind, and maybe a goalball facility."
Cardenas points to several success stories of alumni who are making the most of life. They've let him know that they credit both Camp Bloomfield, and Junior Blind's Visions program, for building their confidence and self esteem.
I am profoundly grateful for the many summers I spent at camp. I have my own set of cherished memories of good people and good times. As a boy I lived in urban Southern California, and without using my telescope I could only ever see two or three of the brightest stars. But it was an altogether different story at camp. Far from big-city lights and haze, the night sky was wide open to me. Because I was completely caught up with astronomy and all things "space," seeing the stars was one of the things about camp that I most looked forward to, and one of the things I best remember. A supernal wonder set in blue-black velvet, the scattered stars and Milky Way formed a twinkling panorama of majestic beauty.
In conversation with Frank Cardenas I marveled at the way faded, 40-year-old memories come back: reveille, the wobbly bridge, Boy's Town Hill. Ask any of the countless Camp Bloomfield alumni and you will, no doubt, hear of favorite activities and favorite counselors. You'll hear of new friends made and new challenges met. You'll also discern a common theme, the single, bottom-line concept that unites it all. Camp Bloomfield is a thoroughly charming experience; and at the end of the day, it's all about fun.
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