Sitting on a wood plank bench in the outdoor chapel, Matthew Herrera was seriously thinking how much more comfortable it was then on those big round logs — lots better with no bugs crawling up your legs. For five years he’d swatted them away.

This morning, midway through the week of his sixth summer at Circle V Ranch Camp, he was listening to Father Peter, who he liked a lot, do his sing-song thing — calling out and campers calling back.

Like right now, with the priest saying in “church talk” you could understand, even with his funny Irish accent, “‘The table at which He was plentifully nourished.’ Nourish means to feed. What does nourished mean?”

“To feed,” Matthew shouted, not really caring if he was louder than his old and new pals on both sides.

“Did we need to have breakfast this morning?”


“Do you feel well nourished?”


After some more of this back and forth, Father Peter, who was wearing his straw hat, started blessing the new altar with holy water. Then he circled it, swinging on a chain a gold metal thing with smoke coming out, pointing out how “incensing” meant this was a holy place.

“God is here,” he said in a softer voice. “Bless this altar. May it always remind us of our prayers rising up to heaven, especially prayers from children, who Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me.’”

Matthew didn’t consider himself a little kid any more. Hey, he was 12-and-a-half. But what Father Peter was saying this Tuesday morning, and every time he came up to camp, you know, about God loving people no matter what they’d done — even if they wound up in and out of prison like his own father — he believed in a lot. Especially after coming to camp and hearing more about Jesus, and what he said and did.

Always made him feel, like, calm inside. Yeah, like right now.

Sycamore altar blessed

The altar — in an ancient oak grove of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Council of Los Angeles’ 30-acre Circle V Ranch Camp, deep in the Los Padres National Forest in the Santa Ynez Valley — was blessed on the eighth day of July by Father Peter Banks. Everybody calls the outgoing, amiable religious “Father Peter,” and his main job is vocation director of the Capuchin Franciscan’s Western America Province. The sturdy sycamore altar, presider’s chair and benches were all crafted by John Miller of Goleta; the eight-foot-high redwood cross behind was built by Paul Malancon of Solvang.

The 54 thick, flat benches, which can seat more than 200 people, like today with mostly seven- to 13-year-old campers, were milled of Monterey Pine. Rough ground had to be leveled, with two aisles separating three rows of benches covered by decomposed granite. The long, snarly limbs of the old oaks provided shade, with plenty of blue sky on the horizon, along with Lake Cachuma. One could thank the Carrie Estelle Doheny Foundation for the rehabbed sacred space in the old-growth forest.

“It’s absolutely impressive to have a place to gather and to be with God, and to have a place to sit, whether it’s at Mass or by yourself,” said Ray Lopez, Circle V’s director. “Every day we start with chapel, eight o’clock. And there’s a theme to the day with a short skit illustrating it. Yesterday was ‘God doesn’t make junk.’ And today ‘We are family.’ We’re all connected and we’re all family, called to treat each other with respect and kindness. That’s what throughout the day we’re role-modelling and teaching the campers.”

The young-looking director said role modeling is huge at camp. Most of the counselors are either college students or graduates just beginning careers with considerable goals. They, in turn, are constantly beating the aspiration drum that there’s no reason campers’ dreams can’t happen, too. It didn’t matter that 95 percent of campers last summer went to Circle V on full or partial scholarships called “camperships,” to help out their working class or poor parents.

David Fields, executive director of the society’s Los Angeles council, had wandered by after the altar blessing and Mass with Father Peter. He was nodding.

“Yeah, for five days and six nights there’s chapel here or there’s some type of prayer,” he said. “And there’s going to be a lesson every day for them to walk away with. That’s going to make a huge different in that child’s life. And they keep coming back year after year, and a lot of them come back as counselors. So it’s a profound experience for 1,200 kids every summer.”

Now Father Peter was nodding his head up and down. “You’re putting memories of love, of caring, into the souls and minds of children that will last a lifetime, I’m convinced,” he said. “I know these children who come in from the inner city. I’ve worked in Watts. They’re going to face hard times. So we want to get into their minds, ‘God will never, never abandon you.’”

“It was interesting when you asked, ‘How many of you know someone in prison?’ and all those hands went up,” Fields pointed out to the Capuchin.  

Without missing a beat, Father Peter observed, “Broken children are mended here by getting some love.”

‘Sisters for a week’

Like Matthew Herrera, this is Tiffany Gaona’s sixth “amazing” summer at Circle V. On her after-lunch walk down to girls’ swim time in the inviting Olympic-size pool — a beach towel draped over her shoulders, her face painted with a curly black mustache and wispy goatee — the 12-year-old from the City of Commerce stopped to explain.

“I just come back because it’s fun, and you always, like, get along with the counselors and you meet new people,” she said. “And you can interact with some of the counselors and some of them you actually become really close to.”

Then she ticked off her all-time best counselors: Erica, Zana, Amanda and Eddy. At home in her room, she kept leather circles with their names burnt into, reminding her of them and all the good times she’s had here.

“They taught us to respect each other and to feel that the campers living with us, they’re our sisters,” she said. “They become our sisters for the week.

“And I really like going to CAP, it stands for ‘cooking, art and photography,’” she added with a quick grin. “I learned to cook when I was about eight; you know, how to cook scrambled eggs. And you get to paint on an easel. In photography you get a camera to go around the camp taking pictures of whoever you want. And when you’re done, you get to choose one to take home.”

For the first session this summer, Tiffany’s old enough to live in a big canvas tent with seven other girls and their counselor. “I suggest, like, being in a tent,” she said with a knowing look. “It feels like you’re more in nature than the cabin. And at night you can also peek outside and see all the stars. At home you can barely see them, ’cause I have a train station with lots of lights next to our house. Here, if you’re lucky, you can see shooting stars.”

All the activities like swimming, hiking, arts and crafts, archery and other sports can involve learning lessons, according to camp director Ray Lopez. And catching a shooting star streaking across the twinkling black sky is truly awesome. But the genuine life-changing moments at the Circle V Ranch Camp, they’re to be found elsewhere.

“The programs at camp are like the bricks of a wall and in between is the mortar, where you have the quiet times with one-on-one conversations,” he said, passing by the boys’ tents, the same basic Army-style tents he slept in as a counselor 20 summers ago. “And it’s those simple things that really make the difference. It’s really in the mortar, the quiet times, where a lot of growth, a lot of breakthroughs, transformation takes place for campers. The interactions with their group and with counselors.

“So it’s those conversations, those friendships that are built and strengthened as the week goes on, and they share their story and they get to know each other and realize they’re a lot more similar than different: ‘And if you can go through your challenges, then so can I.’ That’s what takes place at camp.”