It was my first lunch at Camp Harmony, a free, five-day camp that has opened its doors every year for the past 19 summers to approximately 250 poor and homeless kids who are referred by case workers and employees from homeless shelters. Sponsored by the independent nonprofit United in Harmony (http://www.unitedinharmony.org/uih/), the camp attracted 128 students from private and public high schools around Los Angeles who not only volunteered but also paid to be counselors, role models and tireless companions to these kids. After a two-day orientation, we were ready to go.
When they burst off the buses it was obvious that this was not the usual indulged crowd piling into the bunks at Camp Hess Kramer and Camp Hilltop in Malibu, the Wilshire Boulevard Temple camps that rent space to Camp Harmony. No one came with new shoes or hip clothes like I did when I went to camp. In fact, many came with only the clothes on their backs. Our first "activity" was filling in their meager, ragged wardrobes with brand new clothes and shoes donated by United in Harmony.
I got the oldest kids in the camp -- the 11- and 12-year-olds -- who had already been shaped by life in and out of shelters. It was between rock climbing, hiking, swimming and basketball that the drama of their lives unfolded. Matthew (all of the kids' names have been changed here to protect their privacy) and I were walking up what seemed like a 90-degree hill when I noticed his unusual necklace. "Cool necklace," I complimented. He explained that it had belonged to his uncle, his guardian, who was mistaken for a drug lord one day when they were out for a walk. As his uncle lay dying, shot through the head, Matthew grabbed the necklace and ran for his life. The story had all the makings of great fiction, but it was this kid's life -- his reality. I'd never considered myself privileged or protected. I don't drive a fancy car. I don't go on expensive vacations. Then again, I don't look over my shoulder when I walk down my street, in fear for my life.
They all had stories. I never asked; I only took what they wanted to share. I won their respect because I look tough, but they sensed there was something solid and maybe even sensitive within me. I have something most of them don't have -- a strong foundation. It was built slowly, with great care, by parents who enrolled me in Jewish day school, celebrated Shabbat with me every week, taught me about tzedakah, pushed me to do my math homework and encouraged me to be the best I could be. Every moment of my life has been filled with their love and encouragement. This was just the way all my friends and I were raised. It never really seemed special. At Camp Harmony, I never felt more full or fortunate. I wanted to give these kids everything I had, and they wanted to take everything I offered. The more I gave, the fuller I felt.
One night we lay looking at the stars and talking about wishes and dreams. "I wish for all your dreams to come true," I said. "I wish we had enough money to get by, that my family could be together and we could all just get along," Brian added. "That's a great wish," I said. "But it will never come true," he answered. Maybe it was too much for him to ask. I didn't tell him I was living his dream and taking it all for granted. "You can help make it come true by staying in school, avoiding drugs and reading as much as you can," I automatically replied, feeling like I was stealing a sound bite from my parents. Somehow when I said it, it didn't sound so bad.
They cried because they didn't want to leave Camp Harmony and go back to the shelters. Many said it was the best five days of their lives. I gave them my cellphone number and told them to call if they needed to talk. "I will never forget you," they told me. I know they meant it because four of them called me that night when I was at dinner with my parents and they were feeling alone in their shelters. I know that the realities of their lives may wear this memory as thin as a used shoe, and in just a few years they may not remember that we once talked about our dreams. Or that they had dreams. But Camp Harmony wasn't a dream to me -- it was a wake-up call.
Jeremy Gumerove attended Milken Community High School through his junior year and is completing his senior year at Santa Monica Community College through an LAUSD independent study program.
Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the November issue is Oct. 15; Deadline for the December issue is Nov. 15. Send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.