circle v

Risin’ up, back on the streetDid my time, took my chancesWent the distanceNow I’m back on my feetJust a man and his will to survive

These first lines of the 1982 rock classic “Eye of the Tiger” by the band Survivor blared from loud speakers, waking up 164 boys and girls at the Circle V Ranch Camp in the Los Padres National Forest, 18 windy miles northeast of Santa Barbara.

“Good morning” rang through the 20 wood cabins and eight canvas Army-like tents deep in the woods.  

Sleepy-eyed campers and slightly-more-awake counselors and CILTs (Counselors In Leadership Training) headed down the sloping, drought-dry campground to the outdoor chapel on this overcast summer Thursday morning. Before 8 o’clock, the campers were sitting down on Monterey-pine benches, facing a sycamore altar and the 8-foot-high redwood cross behind it. Gnarly lumps of coast live oaks, some older than 100 years, almost seemed to be reaching out to the young congregation gathered for post-sunrise praise.

“I love Jesus, yes I do. I love Jesus, how about you?” they chanted with growing enthusiasm.  

Now a male counselor wearing a zip-up Dodger jacket was telling a funny story about two dogs with some decidedly moral quandaries as more campers filed into the cozy worship space. A group of other counselors and CILTs did a rapid-fire skit, each person chiming in one word per sentence like some seasoned barbershop quartet.

Standing in front of the altar, Ray Lopez, Circle V’s director, pointed out that the day’s schedule would be modified a bit because Father Peter Banks was coming to celebrate Mass. The Capuchin Franciscan, who lived close by at Old Mission Santa Inez, was a regular, and much beloved, visitor at camp. Lopez assured campers that their activity periods and swim time would remain pretty much the same. Then he asked, “Can someone tell me why we go to Mass?”

“To love God,” a girl called out.

“That’s right, to love God.” Lopez, a young guy with a thin mustache, explained how the Mass was basically divided into two parts — the Liturgy of the Word followed by the Eucharist. “If you made your First Communion, you should come up to receive it,” he said. “If not, still come up for a blessing.”

The half-hour peaked with a rousing rendition of “Oh, Happy Day.”

Stepping forward again, the camp director said, “Let’s have an awesome day.”

21 summers

At breakfast up the hill in the wood-beam dining lodge, wagon-wheel chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, Lopez was telling a visitor how working at Circle V for 21 summers, with the last eight years as fulltime director, has been a life-changing experience.

He’d met his wife, Vicki, here when both were counselors. Now their two boys, Josua, 6, and John Paul, 3, love the two months the Solvang family spends every summer at camp as much as their parents.

“It’s a full-time ministry,” he said. “And it never gets old. I have that front-row view of the transformation that takes place from the first day of camp to the last day of camp. And you see them grow in confidence. You see them grow as family. It’s very quiet on the first night for dinner. And as you can hear now in almost the middle of the fourth session, it’s loud.”

No doubt about that. The sound level would make Phil Spector, who came up with the popular “wall-of-sound” recording approach, proud.

“A singing camp is a happy camp,” calls out a male counselor, standing up in front of the tables.

“What did you say?” respond the campers, sing-songing it like a rap group.

“I said, ‘Oou, baah, baah, oou, baah, baah, baah, oou, baah, baah, baah, oou.’”

“One more time?”

The counselor replies, jazzing up each syllabic grunt.

When he sat down, a young woman bounced up. And she’s soon replaced by another guy giving it his best faux-rap effort: “I said, ‘Everybody raise their hand.’”

It goes on like this for almost 15 minutes, the kids clapping and stomping their feet on the wood floor. Until a triangle-sound, when they suddenly, but smoothly, shift into a reverential alleluia hymn.

Campers stand up when their “outfit” number is called, shuffle their way outside and start walking down to the chapel again. This time it’s for Father Peter’s Mass.

Meanwhile, Lopez was asked, “How do you and your people keep up this kind of kinetic enthusiasm for seven back-to-back weekly sessions with different groups of campers? How is that possible?”

It just made the camp director smile.

“At the heart of everything, we’re grounded in faith and prayer,” he pointed out. “The staff starts the day with prayer. I’ll tell you, it’s great. It’s a lot of hard work. God is at the heart of everything we do, and gives us the energy, gives us that supernatural enthusiasm. But we have a fantastic staff who love to serve. And that’s what it takes.” After a moment, he said, “It’s quite amazing.”

‘Camp Crud’

This is Meghan Walker’s third summer as counselor. She’s got the youngest girls in her cabin, and wouldn’t trade them for any other outfit at camp.

“They’re the most fun for me personally,” she said. “Because I feel like they’re really, really excited to be here. It’s usually their first time away from home. And it’s the first time they get to try new things like camp. So I really love them.”

The 21-year-old psychology major at Loyola Marymount University has come up with a whole strategy for dealing with homesickness and when her 7-year-olds start crying, usually during that first lonely night in the cabin away from their family. She likes to take them outside, one at a time, and asks what they’re sad about.

“You know, if they talk about missing their mom, I’ll ask them questions about their mom,” she explained. “And then I kind of slowly drift away from what they’re sad about. I’ll ask them questions about their life and what they like and about school.

“So I try to distract them from their homesickness,” she said. “And it usually works. After a while they’ll calm down and be ready to go to sleep.” After a pause, she laughed and said, “Sounds like a process, right?”

Meghan traces her own love of Camp V back to when she was just 4, running up and down this same campground. Her parents had been counselors before being promoted to assistant directors. Talking about it now brings a smile as she glances in the direction of the house lodge, not that far away, where her family stayed.

Nostalgia aside, she admits some weeks are harder than others. Depends on the group of kids for that particular session and how she’s feeling physically.

If her young campers aren’t meshing well or she hasn’t gotten enough sleep, it can be kind of rough. The counselors even have a name for it, “Camp Crud,” which usually happens during week five with two more sessions seeming like an eternity.

“I think you have to learn to pace yourself,” the co-ed said. “You know, you take naps during breaks and eat enough food and drink water. And every week it’s new kids, so it gets you really energized.”

A ‘safe haven’

Nick Romo, 16, wants to be a counselor when he turns 18. This summer the soon- to-be-junior at Pasadena High School is a second-year CILT. He started coming to camp the summer before eighth grade. So this is his fourth time in the woods.

“My friend at St. Elisabeth [Church] introduced me to this camp, and I just fell in love with it myself,” he said. “What I like about camp is it allows me to be myself compared to how I am at school. Cause at school you’re around friends and it’s a different way. And then you go home, it’s a different way.

“But when I came here, there’s all these kids,” he said, his voice more upbeat. “And I make all these new friends, even with the little and the older ones. It allows me to be myself, not someone who, you know, tries to impress someone else. I can be myself and not be judged at camp. It’s like a little safe haven for me.”

A little while later, at the same picnic table on an upper level of camp, two campers echoed Nick’s thoughts.

This is Bianca Johnson’s fourth summer at Circle V, too.

“I really like it here,” said the almost-eighth-grader. “It’s really welcoming. And I like everybody who’s here, cause you always get to make friends. And the counselors here are really nice. It’s just, like, I love coming here during the summer.”

Last year she and her counselor Desiree exchanged friendship bracelets they made. She kept hers on until she had to take it off to play sports at school. “But I still have it,” she reported. This summer she likes being a “table leader,” setting things up and then serving food to others. It makes her feel responsible for a change — instead of always being treated like a daughter at home and student at school.

Her favorite sports at camp this summer are volleyball and the dodge ball they play with a giant rubber ball you have to roll — not throw — at other campers.

The only thing she doesn’t like is the pesky tiny black flies that seem to zone in on a particular person. This is her second year sleeping in a tent.

“I actually like the tent way better,” she said. “You don’t get as much bug bites.”

After Bianca had gone, Briana Ruiz stopped by the picnic table, her hair wet from swimming. The 11-year-old just wanted to talk about Erin and Jackie, her two new best cabin friends.

During the day she’s seen lizards scooting right across paths. And at night she’s sure she’s heard wild turkeys. At least that’s what they say all that wild screeching is.  

Her long-range plans at Circle V are also to be a counselor when she turns 18. But before then, there’s becoming a junior CILT, CILT and “all that stuff.”

Right then, cutting off Briana’s train of thought, a man’s voice came over the loud speakers. She stopped to listen. “Activity period has now come to an end,” he declared matter of factly, like some game show host you see on TV. But up here there was no TV or smartphones or even Internet.

“It is now time for roundup. So please wash your hands. Use the bathroom. And round up at the basketball court. Thank you. Have a great day.”

Briana, her hair still wet, had to go.

Planting seeds

For campers like Briana and Bianca, as well as CILTs like Nick, Ray Lopez believes Circle V is crucial.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of getting out in nature,” he said. “There’s something from the fresh air to seeing nature. You’ve got to experience it. And I believe if our kids don’t get that opportunity, a generation will not appreciate it. And the next generation will not honor it, will not take care of it.

“So these opportunities like summer camp are vital and necessary for the development of young people. It develops the whole person — mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically. I mean, it develops their social skills, learning to make friends. It’s profound.”

The director says faith grows at camp, even though it’s not actually taught. Instead, it’s “caught” from the behavior of counselors and other staffers or maybe through a skit that subtly drives home a point or even a camper being assigned to pick up the trash.

“I think that we’re planting seeds that remind kids that these things are important,” said Lopez. “We’re planting seeds of hope. We’ve got a lot of young people who just need to be reminded how much God loves them, how important they are to all humanity, and that they’re called for a mission and a purpose.

“Once they realize that, it’s limitless possibilities,” he pointed out. “And I think that’s what camp does.”