'Dream Team' plants seeds of community

Dream Team day camp coordinator Abel Hernandez, left, helps campers Jessie Garcia, center, and Noel Rodriguez get just-purchased vegetable plants into raised garden beds at Valle Lindo, the former Farm Labor Homes. The day camp focuses on reaching and teaching seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders who could otherwise spend their summer days unsupervised.

Dream Team day camp coordinator Abel Hernandez, left, helps campers Jessie Garcia, center, and Noel Rodriguez get just-purchased vegetable plants into raised garden beds at Valle Lindo, the former Farm Labor Homes. The day camp focuses on reaching and teaching seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders who could otherwise spend their summer days unsupervised. Photo by Andy Porter.

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WALLA WALLA — “You have to get it straight on this side,” Luis Serrano said, kneeling on pavement already baking under the morning sun.

At 10:20 a.m. on this day, thermometers have passed 90 degrees and waves of heat ripple off surfaces.

As concentration trumps inexperience, Luis, Joel Rodriguez and Juan Montero — all 13 — apply blue painters tape to weathered markings on the basketball court at Valle Lindo,

formerly known as Farm Labor Homes.

The trio is part of a larger group of boys and girls outlining the court’s key, free-throw and perimeter lines with ruler-straight precision in preparation for the painting that comes next to restore the recreation spot that sees daily use.

Just one more mission for “The Dream Team,” a new day camp program for seventh- through ninth-graders who live at the housing development for families who work in the area’s agriculture.

The camp project started last month with a $14,000 budget ponied up by local nonprofit agencies, but the concept has been some time in coming, said Jan Foster, president of Friends of Farm Labor Homes.

The nonprofit organization was formed in 2004 by teachers as a way to help residents at the housing development engage with the larger Walla Walla Valley community, especially to find continuing education resources, Foster said.

According to a 2002 agricultural workers survey from the U.S. Department of Labor, the median school level reached by a large share of farm workers was sixth grade, while 4 percent reported having never attended school and 13 percent said they had completed third grade or lower.

Just 5 percent had completed some education beyond high school at that time, the report said.

Among the 126 families living at Valle Lindo are about 200 children, many of them at loose ends during the summer. For babies and toddlers, Migrant Head Start and some relatives take care of the hours parents are at work.

For the next older age group, Children’s Home Society has been providing an arts and reading camp. And at 16, teens can legally go out to work — and most do‚ Foster said.

But, she added, that can spell an age gap challenge for middle schoolers. “They’re full of energy and totally unsupervised. They find all kinds of ways to entertain themselves and some of it is not good.”

Foster said the challenge was to find ways to help these children stay caught up in reading and writing and out of trouble. And in a “holy smokes” moment of clarity, the longer the list of ideas grew the more Friends of Farm Labor Homes realized they could not do it alone, she recalled.

The Walla Walla YMCA turned out to be a natural and agreeable partner, already having equipment, personnel and facility in place. That broadened the day camp plan to include community service and social cohesion, Foster said.

Families must commit to pay $60 for attendance of the five-hour, five-days-a-week camp. It’s not a lot stacked up against the actual cost of $1,000 per camper, she noted. “But that is a big chunk for people living on less than $30,000 a year.”

So far, there’s enough money in place to serve 15 or so of the 43 eligible kids at Valle Lindo, Foster said.

Initially the plan was to transport the campers to the YMCA daily, said Abel Hernandez, Dream Team coordinator. But the better idea was to spend two of the days in Valle Lindo to make a bigger impact right where the campers live, he said.

He and fellow counselors Tim Hutcheson and Kyle Eggars started with a curriculum in mind. But they quickly became the learners when the campers jumped in with their own ideas.

“As adults we think we know what the children need but, once in a while we have to listen to them,” Hernandez said.

He is perhaps better positioned than most to have an ear for what’s not said, too. Growing up in the area, Hernandez often visited friends at what he said is commonly referred to as “the labor camp.” Most who’ve lived there originated from smaller communities in Mexico, in nearly tribal systems. In their new country, people struggle to adapt to change and find it difficult to hand over their children to the care of strangers.

“I was the only boy and very, very protective of my sisters at certain ages. I’m as Mexican as they come,” he said.

The Dream Team is changing that dynamic for families, Hernandez believes.

“No one has gone to a day camp like this before, except as younger kids. We are able to take the kids off site ... Geographically, these children do not have access to recreational opportunities other children in the city have.”

The Dream Team day is more than just fun and games. Take, for example, a recent trip to Blue Mountain Humane Society. Pets are not allowed at Valle Lindo, and Hernandez said many campers had never heard of a Humane Society.

“So we started learning why the animals are there, why there is a Humane Society and how it relies on donations for food,” he said.

After walking dogs and scratching kittens, campers returned home to plan a food drive for the animals.

“On their own,” he said.

That led to further evolvement of the camp schedule. The youths took a survey about what they wanted changed where they live, and as if of one mind all answered they would like their housing area to be free of garbage.

“We went on a clean-up walk and picked up five garbage bins (worth) in 15 minutes. We raised awareness that they can do this themselves and maybe not litter so much,” Hernandez said. “We are letting them take ownership.”

Education is also on the agenda. A June trip to Walla Walla Community College exposed the campers to higher education opportunities, and a riverbank restoration project is on the calendar.

Moving outside the boundaries of Valle Lindo is important, Foster said.

“The camp is safe and comfortable, but it is also isolating,” she said. “We think if those kids are not invited into our community when they are young, they will cause a lot of trouble in our community when they are older.”

Camp time is split about 40 percent service-oriented projects and 60 percent fun, with relationship building layered in, Hutcheson said, watching Eggars help a boy blow dust off the basketball court.

“But even then, we’re trying to teach them skills,” Hutcheson said. “If they know you care about them, they’ll do anything you want.”

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