BOULDER CREEK -- The trip from Silicon Valley high schools to Camp Everytown winds along Highway 9, deep into the Santa Cruz Mountains redwood forest. Once there, in four short days, students take a profound journey straight into the heart of their being.

For many, the experience is transformative.

"We were crying and laughing together," said Lauren Bond, 16, a junior at Milpitas High who attended camp two years ago. "It was an amazing experience."

Bob Grover, a retired assistant principal of Fremont High in Sunnyvale, called the many camps he attended "the highlight of my 37-year career."

Yet now, squeezed by financial and academic pressures, the number of camps offered has shrunk from 21 four years ago to nine scheduled for this year. Milpitas High, which canceled its visit last year for lack of funds, is still struggling to raise $8,000 more to afford its October session. Schools pay the $375 per person out of PTA funds, donations, grants, fundraising and discretionary funds.

Run by Silicon Valley Faces, Camp Everytown seeks to build respect, leadership and appreciation for diversity. In frank, often painful talks, students develop an authentic empathy that crosses lines of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, culture, income and ability.

For critics who grouse that cross-cultural hugs aren't academically relevant, administrators say that pre-empting campus conflict, connecting kids to one another and building a student leadership committed to understanding actually elevates academic achievement.

Reflecting on experience

"I've been in a bully position before," confessed Danny Cervantes, a Milpitas senior who participated in what he still recalls, after two years, was a pivotal camp experience. "It's something I would never do again," he said, after hearing from victims of school bullying. "I saw how deeply it damaged their feelings."

When classmate Anna Montoya hears people utter racist statements, "I tell them, 'Go to camp.'" Slowly, by interacting with the diverse students there, her friends realized they should never be saying certain hurtful things.

Harnessing the power of students' own stories, Camp Everytown prompts reflection on beliefs and experiences.

"It was emotionally draining," said Katherine Pantangco, a freshman at the University of San Francisco, who attended camp twice when she was at Mountain View High. "By sharing our stories, we evaluated how we view other races, how we view our biases, what we can do to change those, how we've come to be the people we are today."

Recently, Camp Director Richard Valenzuela was running a session on gender roles with students from Los Altos High. The group, segregated by gender, started out raucously and eagerly jotted down stereotypes of themselves and the opposite sex. The girls' list describing men was completely negative. And the list from the guys included crude and degrading notions about girls.

Dangerous stereotypes

Once the group was back together, Valenzuela discussed the dangers of stereotypes like "when a girl says no, she really means yes." He also warned them about objectifying people. Then the room fell silent as the director asked about students' personal experiences.

"Please stand up," he said to the boys, "if you've ever worried you were not tough enough."

Nearly every boy stood.

It was the same response as he asked: Had anyone been physically hit by someone ordering them to stop crying? Or, had any of them been called a wimp? And a number of students rose when asked if they'd been forced to fight, and again if they'd witnessed a man strike or emotionally brutalize a woman.

Nearly all the girls stood when Los Altos Assistant Principal Christy Dawson asked if they were ever afraid they were not pretty enough, if they felt less important than a male, or had been lied to by a male who was trying to get something he wanted. One-third stood when asked if they'd been struck, and about as many rose to indicate they'd been assaulted by a male.

In the emotionally powerful session, sporadic sniffles grew into a chorus of sobs.

One of several boys who told of their mothers being beaten said, "Her greatest fear was leaving my dad. He told her she wouldn't be anything in life."

"The people who were supposed to protect me," one girl said, "were the ones who hurt me the most."

Over and over, urged by the strong exchanges during the camp, students said, "I thought I was the only one."

And "I didn't think anyone would understand me."

Building resilience

For 16 years now, the camp has proved that it helps teens navigate the shoals of adolescence and fortify their social and emotional resilience to better equip them for learning, said Pat Mitchell, director of Silicon Valley Faces, a nonprofit dedicated to building a safe community free of bias, bigotry and violence.

In post-camp surveys last year, 98 percent of 275 students said they try to understand what others think and feel, 94 percent said they stand up for those being bullied and 98 percent said they would recommend the camp to a friend. Likewise, administrators attest to its effectiveness on their campuses.

"It really does change the climate," said Cheryl Rivera, assistant principal at Milpitas High, a diverse campus where nearly 50 languages are spoken. The put-downs diminish.

Shortly after the Los Altos High session, senior Richie Haslacher, 17, was reflecting on what occurred. "You think you are the only one suffering," he said, but when he saw some of his friends standing, he realized "they are suffering the same pain, and it really shocked me."

Later, Valenzuela told the group, "I hope you will be more selective in who you date." Los Altos High counselor Ariel Rojas assured them that the campus staff is available to help.

The students went off to a campfire and would continue the next day with sessions on family, disabilities and Jim Crow laws.

When they return to campus, Dawson said, school staff follow up with those who seem vulnerable.

Students also will benefit from newfound camaraderie. Everytown offers a circle of friends to say, "You are not deserving of these abuses," said junior Sarah Jacobs, 16, "And there are people who appreciate you and love you."

Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.

HOW TO HELP
To contribute to Camp Everytown, checks may be sent to Silicon Valley FACES, PO Box 11014, San Jose 95103-1014. Make checks out to Silicon Valley Faces.
To help Milpitas High School send a delegation to Camp Everytown, donations may be sent to Milpitas High School, c/o Jeff Waugh/Camp Everytown, 1285 Escuela Parkway, Milpitas 95035. Make checks out to Milpitas High School.