Sunset Rec Center morphs into home for happy campers
The lawn at Sunset Rec before summer camp and after.
When the road to Sunset Canyon Recreation Center resembles a freeway on-ramp every weekday morning and late afternoon, when the family swimming pool becomes a swarming splash pond for hundreds of kids and the sweeping lawns their giant lunchtime picnic area — it’s summer camp time at UCLA.
Beginning this week and running through August 31, UCLA Recreation Summer Camps brings 4,000-plus kids ages 5-15, to campus for 10 fun-filled weeks of swimming, game-playing, arts and crafts, tennis, sailing, even rocket-building and theater production.
But camp really got started last week, Saturday through Friday, June 9-15, when "Bubbles," "Dash," "Gumby," "Superman" and 121 of their self-nicknamed counselors spent seven days in training, learning everything from popular camp games and songs to the logistics of moving campers from one place to another, on and off campus, without losing anybody. Then last Thursday, June 21, the counselors took on the all-day task of transforming Sunset Rec — along with portions of the John Wooden Recreation Center — into a campworthy site.
Overseeing the operation was Camp Director Tiffany Cote, walkie-talkie on her hip to keep in touch with a dozen or so UCLA Recreation staff members and other coordinators helping her manage the makeover. Cote started at "the bunker," a subterranean-like space next to the road into Sunset Rec that serves as year-round storage for boxes of thousands of camp T-shirts, piled-high cases of tennis balls, mountains of art supplies and just about anything else required to create a camp.
The Vista Room becomes Imagination Station.
"Let’s see … puppets … markers," Cote said, surveying plastic bags of cloth puppets and boxes of a thousand multi-colored markers. At her side was coordinator "Lilo" helping to direct the counselor troops, most of them students from UCLA and other nearby colleges. As they lined up outside the bunker, Cote and her assistant dispatched them to haul supplies and equipment up the road, through Sunset Rec’s front gate, past the summer camp office bustling with staffers handling last-minute details, and up steps to rooms that, at other times of the year, serve as meeting spaces and classrooms.
Now these spaces would become the activity and home rooms for some of the 11 camps offered, from Camp Bruin Kids for K-through-fifth graders to Camp Explore and Camp Adventure for pre-teens and teens. There’s also Bruins on Broadway for theater-loving kids and Camp Explore with specialty themes like Young Einstein science sessions and Bruin Ninjas martial arts.
In the Vista Room — which would morph into the Imagination Station — two custodians from Facilities Management did a last-minute floor-sweeping while camp counselors piled up paints, pipe cleaners and paste in plastic tubs filled to the brim.
Setting up the Art Room.
In the Santa Fe room — which becomes the Art Station for three groups of campers coming in every a day to do crafts projects — counselors carried in and then unwrapped bulky packages containing hundreds of pieces of plastic to be assembled into shelving units. Next came loads of crafts supplies, with art room director Jennifer "Lucky Charms" Hernandez directing her young counselors to stock some of them in her room and distribute the remainder to different locations.
Art Room Director Jennifer "Lucky Charms" Hernandez.
"Can we take a break?" one perspiring worker asked two hours into his labors, earning a few minutes of downtime for everyone from Hernandez, a three-year camp staffer who graduated last spring from UCLA with degree in psychology and a minor in education.
"Camps are quite a passion of mine," Hernandez said. "I love working with kids" — so much so that this fall she will return to UCLA to pursue her teaching credential at the Graduate School of Education & Information Science.
Camp Director Tiffany Cotes at her "treehouse" office.
Camp setup is the culmination of year-round planning by Cote and four other staff members. A camp veteran, Cote worked as a counselor for four summers while she was a UCLA undergrad. After graduating in 2002 with a degree in sociology, followed by a stint in the AmeriCorps non-profit service program, she ended up returning to campus to take the job as camp director in 2004.
Even as this year’s camp season is just getting started , Cote said, "we’re jotting down ideas for improvements for next year," from doing a better job of directing parents to where they should drop their kids off each morning, to teaching counselors yet another new skill." The list will continue to grow throughout the summer and during debriefings of camp leaders the week after camp ends.
The family pool before summer camp and during.
Planning and logistics for the following year really start to kick in around October, Cote said, when she puts in requests for Sunset Rec rooms as well as the facility’s Challenge Course. She also signs up for rooms at the Wooden Center for classes in digital photography and DJ mixing, court time at the L.A. Tennis Center, and access to UCLA’s Marina Aquatic Center, where campers in Bruins on Water and Camp Voyager learn to sail and kayak. In addition, she reserves the School of Theater, Film and Television’s Little Theater at Macgowan Hall for Bruins on Broadway campers’ final performances.
And then there’s the summer’s complex swim schedule, which Cote choreographs. While Sunset Rec’s ground-level park pool remains reserved for its regular patrons during the summer, the family pool between 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. becomes swim central for about 250 Camp Bruin Kid campers plus hundreds more non-camp kids and teens taking swimming lessons.
In December, Cote starts making reservations for field trips to Knotts Berry Farm and just about every other major theme park in Southern California, along with the California Science Center, the All American Melodrama Theater in Long Beach and other sites. With the field trips come complicated arrangements for transportation — this includes three buses required every Wednesday for Camp Bruin Kids, a daily bus for Camp Voyager and other transit needs, adding up to more than 100 bus round-trips throughout the summer.
In late winter and early spring, "we sit down and figure out what supplies we need and make sure we order enough for the entire summer," said Cote. Prominent on the long list are T-shirts, cleaning supplies and art supplies — paint, brushes, markers, construction paper and poster board. On the list but not purchased until the last minute are board games — Uno, Connect Four and more, which Cote picks up less expensively at local stores instead of buying them online.
Counselor recruitment starts in the spring too. This year, 125 counselors were hired from 175 candidates interviewed and a much larger field of total applicants. Counselors get 45 hours of training, with much of it taking place in the Buena Vista Room, the largest in the Sunset Rec complex. But during camp setup week, the room’s floor was spread with poster board, markers and paints as counselors drew dozens of signs, pointing campers and counselors to the right activity and program.
Among the sign-makers was Abigail "Abalicious" Hamilton, coordinator for Camp Voyager. Starting out as a counselor the summer after graduating from high school, Hamilton is still at it 15 years later, although now her summers are vacation time from her job as a language arts teacher at the Hollywood School House.
Abigail "Abalicious" Hamilton leads Camp Voyayer.
"I love it, but it’s hard work," said Hamilton of her camp experience. "Just this past Friday, I finished packing up my classroom, and Saturday, training started here." Managing a crew of four counselors, she will spend the next 10 weeks taking more than 300 campers surfing at Venice Beach, sailing and kayaking at Marina Aquatic Center, rock-wall-climbing at the Wooden Center and field trips.
"It’s a long day — 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. — but you don’t think about it while it’s happening. Then you go to your car, and you want to sleep," Hamilton said. And at the end of the summer, she added, "Everyone asks me, ‘Are you coming back next year?’ I always say I’m not sure. … But every year, I’m back. It’s just been a phenomenal experience."