January 6, 2010
Nick Melvoin: Blending Camp Fun With Social Justice
“For me, the hook was working with kids,” Nick Melvoin responded when asked why he decided to volunteer for Camp Harmony.
Melvoin, who graduated from Harvard University in 2008, has been working with the camp since he was in 10th grade at Harvard Westlake. He now serves as programming director at the camp, a project of United in Harmony, which for 20 years has given Los Angeles kids living below the poverty line a sleep-away camping experience they might otherwise never get — including swimming, hiking, scooter hockey, capture-the-flag, yoga, tie-dye, soccer, wacky Olympics and more.
Working with local shelters and social service agencies, the camp serves children ages 5 to 13 who live in homeless shelters, subsidized public housing and in apartments with multiple families. Every summer and winter, Harmony offers sessions at the Hess Kramer campgrounds in Malibu.
Melvoin started as a counselor, and even while in college he returned to Los Angeles for every session. He eventually became a support staff member and unit head before taking on the role of programming director.
Melvoin’s duties now include planning and coordinating monthly leadership and mentoring events for the kids, an experience he says has helped him put the rigors of private school and Ivy League life in perspective.
“I think it’s really easy to get jaded,” Melvoin said of living and studying in such affluent and competitive environments. “I don’t know what high school would’ve been like without Camp Harmony, but I imagine I would have been more narrow-minded.”
Melvoin plans to apply to law school — his ultimate goal is to run for political office, with the hopes of combining law and service with social justice.
Everybody who has worked with Melvoin gushes with praise. “Nick has shown tremendous leadership skills throughout his years with Harmony,” said Ronna Slutske, board president of United in Harmony. “He lights up a room whenever he enters.”
Melvoin’s day job is just as centered on giving back to the community. Through Teach for America, he holds a full-time teaching position at Markham Middle School in Watts. Recently he was appointed principal of the school-within-the-school and continues to teach English as a Second Language to classes with up to 30 kids, as well as a journalism class he started.
Additionally, he is an active member of the Maccabi World Union’s Young Leadership Group, an international organization whose mission is to connect Jews worldwide through sport.
Melvoin admits that he aspires to be a mensch, but at the same time he notes there are a lot of others who qualify.
“When I consider other people I work with at Camp Harmony,” said Melvoin, “I realize there are a lot of us within the faith.”
Although Camp Harmony is not a Jewish camp, much of the staff is Jewish, guided by the same social justice principles as Melvoin.
“I’m not ultra-religious in the sense of Torah study or temple, but the ideas of Judaism, like tikkun olam or tzedakah, really influence what I do,” he said.
You can be a mensch, too! Join the cause.