Marin County Office of Education
For many kids, summer vacation may mean a trip to camp – a place where they can make new friends, enjoy outdoor experiences and develop a sense of independence.
But the summer camp experience is often reserved for kids from advantaged families.
In Marin County, a week-long program called Camp Chance, offered every summer to at-risk and underserved children ages 11-13, exposes kids to all the traditional camp experiences – and plenty more.
A partnership between the Marin County Office of Education (MCOE), the San Rafael Police Department and the Marin County Sheriff’s Department, the camp offers kids all of the traditional summer camp activities – archery, swimming, arts and crafts, hiking, treks to the beach and campfire activities.
“We take these things for granted, but some kids never get these opportunities,” said George Stratman, principal of the camp and manager of the 1,700-acre Walker Creek Ranch, where Camp Chance takes place. The ranch is owned and operated by MCOE.
Camp Chance also features an added bonus for these kids: interaction with local police officers. “It’s about cops and kids getting to know one another, building a bond,” said Rebecca Kuga, supervisor of the Youth Services Bureau Program for the San Rafael Police Department.
“That’s what helps reduce juvenile crime and helps change kids’ notions of law enforcement. This is really of value in these dark days of challenging community/police relations.”
Stratman said when campers interact with police officers, “they see that they’re down to earth and just like anyone else. So when they see them out in the community they’ll have a better understanding that they’re a wonderful part of our community and they won’t be afraid to approach them.”
Kuga said their goal is to “reach out to kids to help them stay on the right path and make better choices.” Many kids who attend the camp become interested in careers in law enforcement, she said.
Kids are able to interact with local fire fighters, trying on their gear and carrying their fire hoses. Marin County Search and Rescue stages a rescue of a “lost” child, letting campers find and rescue the victim using a gurney. Kids learn how to lift fingerprints, see the tools the SWAT team uses, and may get to see a police helicopter touch down at camp.
Kuga, who is a psychotherapist and not a police officer, said she also works with kids on mental health issues such as bullying to help them learn tools to cope.
“Camp Chance is full service – we take care of body, mind and spirit,” she said.
Still, Camp Chance is “first and foremost a traditional summer camp,” Stratman said. Many of the campers have never roamed around in open space, or seen the ocean or wildlife. “This is the first true nature experience for a lot of kids.”
The experience at Walker Creek Ranch gives kids an opportunity to “just be kids,” he said. “They come out here and get to be with kind, compassionate people who care about them, and they build community. That sense of belonging and community helps them understand that the opportunities for personal growth are endless.”
Many campers are repeat attendees. An alumni program for kids who age out means that 14-year-olds can work as cabin leaders. Those ages 15-17 can become “counselors in training,” and those ages 18 and over can be hired for the week as paid counselors.
One of Stratman’s roles as principal is hiring and training the staff members who work with the kids. The role of staff, he said, “is to give the kids at Camp Chance one of the best weeks of their life.”
Stratman has had a long career in outdoor education as a principal and in the central office. As manager of Walker Creek Ranch, Stratman also oversees year-round programs for elementary students that help inspire an appreciation of the natural world.
Most kids who attend Camp Chance are nominated by their middle schools. Parents and youth organizations sometimes contact the camp asking if there are spots available.
“Camp Chance has a lot of brand recognition,” Kuga said. The camp was established in 1999, and has been held at Walker Creek Ranch since 2008. Around 60-80 kids attend the week-long camp each year.
Kuga said while the County of Marin provides some funding for Camp Chance, most of its funds are donations from citizens and businesses.
For those who get to see first-hand the value of Camp Chance, that ongoing community support is important.
“At closing circle when the week is over the kids talk about the friends they made,” Stratman said. “Kids who weren’t so sure about being at camp when they arrived don’t want to go home. It’s very affirming to see the joy this program brings to the children.”