Camping it Forward

At a unique summer camp, kids learn the value of volunteering—giving back to their community and making memories to last a lifetime.

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    Rachel Heller Zaimont

Meredith Madnick’s daughter, Shea, was 6 years old when the mom had a jarring epiphany. “We were living an affluent lifestyle and everything was picture-perfect. I realized that as a result, she was growing up spoiled,” Meredith recalls. “I felt like Shea could benefit greatly from service to the community.”

She searched for a volunteering program, but there were few options available for children so young. So she decided to create one.

In 2011, the Northridge mom founded Camp Helping Hands, a summer camp centered around community service. Geared for ages 6 to 14, the innovative day camp now serves about 130 campers per week at locations in Northridge and Thousand Oaks.

Each summer, the programming reflects a theme: “Serving what serves us” will be this year’s focus, split into specific weekly topics. Meredith partners with local organizations to immerse kids in a variety of ways to volunteer.

During Earth Week, campers will learn about the environment and conservation, tending a neighborhood garden with the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust and getting a taste of nutritious food with Imperfect Produce. People Week will bring campers face to face with firefighters, first responders and soldiers, as kids tour a fire station and work with the nonprofit For the Troops. Animal Week’s field trips will include experiential learning with Guide Dogs of America and therapy horses.

Kids do participate in traditional camp pastimes like swimming, sports and games, but the giving theme is woven into most of the activities. A crafting session, for example, might involve children making items for donation. Kids have made blankets for My Stuff Bags, dog biscuits for puppies at the shelter and tissue cozies for local senior centers. “Campers may sew one day, paint the next and then cook the following week,” Meredith explains.

“It’s fantastic for families who want a camp that inspires kids to be empathetic and compassionate, while also learning about new topics and trying new activities,” says Adina Nack of Thousand Oaks, whose daughter, Hana, 13, has attended since she was 8. She also likes that the camp empowers her daughter to “engage with real-world civic issues.”

As a mother, Meredith is grateful she could create the opportunity she wanted for her daughter. “After all, children have to keep busy during the summer,” she says. “Why not put them somewhere you can feel good about?”