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Camp Hapitok faces uncertain future

Austin Hall, 9, left, gets some instruction from Erica Mundell-McGilvray during a tie-dye tile-making class at Camp Hapitok.
Austin Hall, 9, left, gets some instruction from Erica Mundell-McGilvray during a tie-dye tile-making class at Camp Hapitok. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Camp Hapitok isn’t a typical summer camp.

All the traditional hallmarks of childhood summer camps are present, of course: It takes place for four weeks midsummer in a rustic-looking facility on the outskirts of San Luis Obispo, complete with bunks, a dining hall and a dirt road leading up to it. Brightly colored cut-outs of hands, hearts and other shapes with scribbled-on names hang in the windows as “happy notes” to campers, counselors and friends.

Everyone goes by self-chosen names like “Mustache,” “Silly Pepper” and “Mr. Tomato.” And absolutely everyone gets excited about the taco bar for lunch.

But there’s a twist.

As 9-year-old Estefany Shaw — who calls herself “Panther” — chatters with a camp counselor about the number of people assembled around the camp flagpole that day, the counselor reaches down and punches a hole through one of the rectangular pieces of construction paper attached to the girl’s lanyard, congratulating her on her good use of “r” sounds.

“I heard that you used pretty good sentence construction earlier as well,” the counselor says as she puts another punch in a 5-by-5 grid visible on a different paper, at the same time carefully making sure that the microphone attached to her headpiece is in place in front of her mouth. 

The microphone feeds sound into Panther’s cochlear implants — a type of surgically implanted hearing aids.  

The campers at Camp Hapitok (pronounced “happy talk”) have a range of speech and communication disorders, from mild articulation to auditory processing and deafness, and have all been referred to the camp by their school district. They spend the four-week summer camp, which started July 6, working with speech pathologists, deaf/hard of hearing specialists and teen volunteers known as Therapy Individual Goal Reinforcers (TIGRs) to practice their individual speech and language goals and improve their communication skills.

Since it was founded in 1970, the camp has helped thousands of San Luis Obispo County students through its unique brand of speech therapy. But because of a recent problem with its funding, this year’s session may be the camp’s last. 

A day at camp

A camper’s day begins and ends with his or her assigned TIGR.

A teen volunteer is assigned to one camper each session, and they are with them throughout the day all four weeks — from waking the camper up in the morning, through morning announcements, breakfast, morning activities, PE time, arts and crafts, language-related activities, an afternoon nap, language therapy, exploration stations, group time, free time, dinner, evening activities and then — finally — bedtime at 8:15 p.m.   

“We are essentially fifth-graders all day long,” said TIGR Jeff Neumann, who goes by the camp name “Blue.” “And all the while we are working on their individual education plans, and working on these language goals.”

Throughout the day, the TIGRs reward their campers for specific language achievements by punching holes in their lanyard grids. Each camper is required to fill at least three cards, totaling 75 punches, each day. Those cards are then redeemed for extra activities and games.

For Panther, one activity stands out more than most.

“Swimming!” she says excitedly at the lunch table as she gobbles up a tostada from that day’s taco bar. “And tomorrow we are going to show a horse! At the fair.”

Panther, who sometimes has a hard time hearing when in a loud room because of her implants, also proudly showed off one of the small purple rings on her lanyard that she earned the previous day.

“I did five grids yesterday,” she proclaimed to the table with a grin. “I’m going to do it again, too.” 

Campers who complete five language grids earn a purple “chicken ring” to hang on their lanyards as special mementos of their hard work. 

It isn’t all fun and games at camp, however.

Sometimes campers have a hard time adjusting, said volunteer Dari Owens (camp name “Supernova”), as she described one of her former campers who would lash out at her throughout the session, saying he didn’t like camp or her. 

But in the end, it was worth it, she said.

“It was the last day, our last half-hour together, and he leaned against me and said, ‘I’m really going to miss you,’ ” Owens said through tears. “It was just a moment when I felt like my time at camp meant something, and impacted someone in a way that was positive. It was big for me. That’s the moment I decided what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

Owens is in her first year studying speech pathology at University of Redlands.

An uncertain future 

Despite a passionate group of volunteers and staff, the camp has had a difficult year.

In March, the nonprofit organization Friends of Hapitok announced that it would be canceling its session for the first time in its 44-year history, after the San Luis Obispo County Department of Education pulled its funding and support from the program because of legal concerns.

The group previously paid about $30,000 annually to rent the Rancho El Chorro Outdoor Educational Facilities and for administrative services from the education office. The county office recruited and employed all staff and provided insurance coverage for the camp. 

County Superintendent James Brescia said the education office would not be able to continue its partnership because of a change in “current legal proceedings for 2015” that made it inadvisable for the camp to be run by Friends of Camp Hapitok while the group’s workers were employed by the county.

After an upwelling of community protest, Brescia promised to waive the camp’s outstanding bill from its 2014 session — equivalent to about $55,000 — and rent the county’s Rancho El Chorro facilities to the group essentially for free so the organization could put on this year’s summer session. 

The move saved the group more than $80,000 in operating costs, executive director Alison Fesler said at the time, but the organization was still left scrambling to figure out what it would need to do to ensure the camp’s long-term financial stability. 

Because the camp is offered to students for free, Friends of Hapitok is financed almost entirely through fundraising.

Shortly after the announcement, the group also launched a crowdfunding campaign with the goal of raising approximately $55,000 that could go to next year’s camp. The campaign fell short of its goal, raising $32,057.

This meant the future of the camp is uncertain — the Friends of Hapitok board of directors is expected to make a decision in the fall on how it wants to proceed next year, and if it will have adequate funding to support another session.

As this year’s session prepares to wrap up, and while she waits to learn of the camp’s ultimate fate, Fesler said she is just enjoying the memories she has made this summer.

“I am extraordinarily thankful for every moment we have had this summer,” she said as she wiped her eyes after a presentation to a group of sponsors. “Without all of the help of our sponsors and everybody, I don’t know where we would be. And as we look into the future …  we’re figuring it out. But we are just so, so grateful for this summer.” 

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