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Teens to Know

This Jewish Teen Wants All Kids to Experience Summer Camp

Madeline Salvetierra

The instructions were simple but terrifying.

Madeline Salvatierra was told to purposefully capsize her canoe in the middle of a lake, then somehow get herself back to shore. There were lifeguards, of course, and camp counselors cheering her on. But Madeline, who was 9 at the time, didn’t know how she could do this all by herself. Until she did.

“Camp is a magical place,” she says. The confidence and courage that summer camp gave to Madeline still inspire her today. That is why she’s working so hard to make summer camp accessible to all kids.

Madeline’s organization, Camps to Explore and Empower (CEE), started as a Girl Scout project. Now in its third year, CEE’s camps, which combine fun with enrichment skills, help at-risk youth ages 6 to 12 across the country.

Madeline’s next move? To make these hands-on programs available during the school year as well. Madeline is a 2018 recipient of the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards for her generous and creative work.

Talking With Madeline:

Who do you follow on social media?
My friends! I love watching my friends pursue their passions and it always brightens my day to see my friends posting about something great that happened in their lives. I love supporting their accomplishments.

When did you first go to camp and what did you like about it?
My first resident camp experience was when I was going into 4th grade. I went to Camp Scherman, a Girl Scout Camp in Mountain Center, Calif., for 5 days. The counselors inspired me to become more outgoing and fearless. I loved making new friends and trying new activities in an all-girls environment.

Can you tell me about that first moment when you realized that not everyone could afford to go to camp?
After I had the best experience of my life at summer camp, I spent all of 5th and 6th grade trying to convince my friends to go to camp, but their parents said it was too expensive. I realized that camp is a huge investment for parents and that oftentimes, simply out of a family’s budget. In 9th grade, I was brainstorming ideas for my Girl Scout Gold Award, the highest award a Girl Scout can earn, and I asked myself, “What am I passionate about?” Of course, my answer was camp! Initially, my project idea was to send every kid to camp. I met with staff members at the Orange County Rescue Mission’s Village of Hope, a transitional living facility in my community, to talk to them about the needs that their youth residents have. They told me that lots of the kids lacked opportunities to explore careers for their future. Since the kids at the Village of Hope couldn’t afford to go to camp and needed enrichment activities, I decided to bring career exploration and camp to them through Camps to Explore and Empower.

How did you go about organizing CEE?
I have spent over 300 hours working on CEE. Before the first summer of camp, I met with a highly experienced staff member from Camp Scherman who helped me formulate the structure of the camp. I pitched my idea to both Orange County Rescue Mission and the Assistance League of Tustin. Once both organizations were on-board, I spent months researching and designing activities, recruiting speakers for the camp, and training volunteers.

How has CEE expanded since that first summer?
I try to bring in new and exciting speakers each year. We had Van Partible (the creator of the TV show Johnny Bravo), an Orange County judge, and lots of other exciting speakers. Each year, I try to improve the quality of the activities. Every single activity relates to careers, from building marshmallow catapults to explore engineering to making ice cream in a bag to learn about food science. I’ve created a ton of new activities since the first summer.

What role do you play in the CEE summers?
During the first summer, I ran everything, from recruiting speakers to purchasing supplies to managing the volunteers. Each summer, though, I try to delegate more of the work to teen volunteers. It’s a great leadership opportunity. I knew I wouldn’t always be around to run the camps myself, and I designed my project so that it can be sustained for years to come. My goal is to spread CEE camps across the country and to mentor other leaders who can run the program in their communities.

What is the most rewarding part?
Summer camp was such a positive growth experience in my life, and I love watching the campers grow and discover their interests. The most rewarding part of CEE is seeing campers’ excitement when they find a new activity that they love. The whole goal of CEE is to end the cycle of poverty by helping campers find their passion and develop the confidence they need to pursue that passion through high school, college, and beyond.

How do you balance this work with being a teenager and going to school?
When my friends were at sports practices, I was working on CEE. I mean, during the summers, I would treat CEE like a 9-to-5 job. During the school year, though, I would check my email during study hall and would sometimes spend about two hours on CEE after school before starting my homework.

What’s next for the CEE campaign?
My goal is to spread CEE to other communities as an after-school program. I plan to pitch CEE to youth-serving organizations in my college town.

How about you?
I’m in my first year at Arizona State University and plan to study business. I also plan to study abroad on the Semester-at-Sea program, where students take classes on a cruise ship and travel to 12 destinations around the globe. Going on this program has been my dream for so many years, and now, thanks to the Diller Foundation, I can do it! I am really passionate about religious tolerance and harmony among different cultures, so going on this trip will be really exciting.

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