By David Ogul
Virtually every student at Central Elementary School in San Diego’s United Nations of a neighborhood known as City Heights lives in poverty, and 8 out of 10 are classified as English language learners. For many, luxuries are about as common as a night without police sirens.
But thanks to a small nonprofit, the school’s third graders each summer are treated to two days of camping in San Diego County’s backwoods, where they go on hikes with volunteers, learn about native American history from local Indians and study the constellations from stargazers at an astronomy club.
“It’s all about education and getting kids outside and unplugged from their electronics and having them connect with nature,” said Judy Meeker, a director at the Jarrett Meeker Foundation, which pays for the trips.
“Every kid should be able to go camping,” said teacher Sarah Mathy, who helps coordinate the excursions.
Mathy launched the effort shortly after arriving at Central seven years ago. It was clear her third graders didn’t have the same recreational opportunities as kids elsewhere in the city – San Diego officials note that City Heights is woefully lacking in neighborhood parks. So she figured she’d treat her class to a night of camping.
Mathy, however, wasn’t expecting the reaction she got when she approached then-principal Staci Monreal. “She said it would have to be every third grader in the school,” Mathy recalled. “It couldn’t just be one class.”
There was just one problem: Mathy had no money to transport, feed and care for 130 or so 8- and- 9-year-olds on a camp-out.
Then she heard about the Jarrett Meeker Foundation through an AmeriCorps volunteer at the school. Judy Meeker helped set up the nonprofit after her 8-year-old son died accidentally in 1987 while playing on the swings in the family’s backyard. Jarrett Meeker was the adventurous, outdoorsy type, and the Meekers wanted to keep his memory alive by providing kids with the opportunity to have the same types of experiences their child had.
Mathy contacted Meeker, who was intrigued by the idea. But Mathy was told she had no time to waste in making a formal pitch; the foundation’s board was set to meet the following day to discuss distributions.
Central Elementary School sits in the midst of a sprawling, impoverished neighborhood that includes San Diego’s Little Saigon Cultural District and a burgeoning Little Mogadishu. It is home to myriad nonprofit endeavors.
Barely 1 in 100 of the students at Central is white, and 99 percent of the kids who go there are on the free or reduced lunch program. Families are so poor that the Polk Avenue campus is home to a school-based medical clinic offering free medical services to anyone in a student’s family.
Going camping is about the last thing parents were thinking about for their kids when Sarah Mathy began working there. Mathy, however, saw a camping trip not only as a rare excursion, but also as a teaching tool.
“My great hope was that we could all have a shared experience while learning about science and the outdoors,” she said.
The Jarrett Meeker Foundation was sold. In the summer of 2008, ’09 and ’10, it paid for overnight camping trips at what was then called the San Diego Wild Animal Park some 35 miles to the north in the San Pasqual Valley.
Judy Meeker, though, thought her nonprofit could craft a more creative camping experience for less money. It worked with teachers and then-principal Cindy Marten – who was recently named San Diego Unified School District’s superintendent – in putting together an educational excursion tailored to Central Elementary’s lesson plans. The Barona Band of Mission Indians would provide lessons on early California history. The San Diego Astronomy Association would teach kids about the constellations and planets. The San Diego County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team would talk about survival techniques. Kruisin’ Kritters would bring snakes, lizards and other creepy crawlies to the campsite for a little show and tell.
Hikes, campfires and composting were incorporated into the trip, which has been held at Louis Stelzer County Park for the past three years.
“We’ve created an outdoor classroom,” Meeker said. “And we’re giving kids an opportunity to go hiking, eat good food and bond with each other.”
Meeker said her foundation, which recorded revenue of less than $52,000 in 2011 (the most recent year for which tax filings are available), has covered the cost of taking more than 1,000 Central Elementary third graders camping since it got involved in the effort.
Eight-year-old Ximena Garcia had been looking forward to her July trip for weeks. “I felt like I was going to the moon,” she said. “I’ve never been camping. This is so exciting for me.”
Rosie Ramirez, 9, felt the same way. “I feel like jumping up and down all the time,” she said while jumping up and down shortly after her bus pulled into the campsite.
Vice Principal Sarah Ott had about as much fun as they did. Almost.
“A lot of these children have never been away from home before, so it’s quite the experience for them,” she said. “They’ve never even had s’mores before. They’d grab a graham cracker and say, ‘Now what do I do?! Now what do I do?! It was amazing.”
At 10:30 p.m., the campfire was out and the kids hunkered down in Coleman tents provided by the Meeker Foundation. “There was a lot of giggling and laughing,” Ott said. “It was a great noise.”
Judy Meeks said she’s hoping to expand the program to include other schools in other parts of the San Diego County. Funding, however, remains a challenge. Her nonprofit doesn’t even have a grant writer.
That hasn’t kept her from hoping.
“This is a great program,” she said. “A dream for our board would be to duplicate this for all third graders, no matter where they live.”