For the Love of Troy Camp

By Matthew Kredell
Photographs by Mark Berndt

The summer camp Otis Healy started 62 years ago is still going strong, bringing friendship, adventure and personal growth to inner-city kids and the USC student volunteers who watch over them.

The stunning vistas of the San Bernardino Mountains are part of the magic of Troy Camp. From left, David Melendez, 10, of Hoover Street Elementary School; Kyren Johnson, 10, of John W. Mack Elementary School; and Jenny Rosales, 10, of James A. Foshay Learning Center, spend a few quiet moments with Troy Camp founder Otis Healy.Slideshow IconThe stunning vistas of the San Bernardino Mountains are part of the magic of Troy Camp. From left, David Melendez, 10, of Hoover Street Elementary School; Kyren Johnson, 10, of John W. Mack Elementary School; and Jenny Rosales, 10, of James A. Foshay Learning Center, spend a few quiet moments with Troy Camp founder Otis Healy.
Counselors and campers discuss the upcoming evening bonfire while reflecting on their experiences at Troy Camp. Oswaldo Aquine, 10, of Norwood Street Elementary School, left, and Darnay Jointer, 9, of The Accelerated School, watch fellow campers taking a swimming test. Hugo Mercel, 10, of Dr. Theodore T. Alexander Jr. Science Center School, sits on his cabin bunk, ready for a water fight. One afternoon’s activities included a carnival with inside and outside games. Here, two campers play foursquare. Counselors and the girls in their cabin discuss the upcoming evening bonfire, at which they will toss in the enormous pinecone they just found. The counselors are Ebony Bailey, a sophomore journalism major (at left in red shirt) and Adi Yogev, a freshman computer science major (in orange T-shirt). The campers are, clockwise from bottom right, Victoria Pastor, 10, of Lenicia B. Weemes Elementary School; Melany Marquez, 9, of The Accelerated School; Rachel Corea, 10, of Menlo Avenue Elementary School; Kaya Threet, 9, of MLK Elementary School; counselor Bailey; Guadalupe Estrada, 10, of Synergy Charter Academy; counselor Yogev; Savannah Foster, 8, of 32nd Street School; Samantha Garcia, 10, of 52nd Street Elementary School. At left, Saroya Sandiford, a sophomore majoring in urban planning, a former camper and a Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI) graduate who was a counselor for the first time in 2011. She listens to Otis Healy, who founded Troy Camp in 1948 and returns regularly. At right is counselor Jairo Hernandez, a sophomore computer science major. He also is a former camper and an NAI graduate. USC student counselors Conor Gilligan (rear left in orange hat), a theatre major, and Julian Hricik (rear right), a biological sciences and art history major, pose with the eight campers who were in their cabin during the week of Troy Camp.

On an 80-degree day late in May, Otis Healy ’50 watches as schoolchildren run past to play in the sand and swim in the lake up in the San Bernardino Mountains.

With his white hair and aged skin, Healy stands out among the kids and college students who have taken over Forest Falls’ Lakeview campsite for this year’s installment of USC Troy Camp, which Healy, 84, started more than six decades ago. As he watches kids climb a makeshift waterslide and bounce around on an inflatable water toy, he is beholding his legacy.

It was 1949 when Healy, then an undergraduate student at USC, raised $3,500 to organize Troy Camp with five of his friends. They aimed to give underprivileged children in the neighborhoods surrounding the university an opportunity to get away from the troubles of inner-city life and experience a week of summer-camp activities in the wilderness.

Today, Troy Camp continues as the oldest and largest student-run philanthropic organization at USC – passed down and carried on by a new group of student volunteers every year.

Thanks to Troy Camp, more than 10,000 South Los Angeles third-, fourth- and fifth-graders have ridden a horse, shot a bow and arrow, gone swimming in a lake, experienced nature and camaraderie, and received positive feedback and mentoring from college students.

“It gives me a great feeling of satisfaction to see something I started that kept on going and growing,” says Healy, who checks in on the camp each year on Visitor’s Day, the second-to-last day of camp. “It’s also great that every year it seems to be a little bit better than the previous year.”

Healy came up with the idea for Troy Camp after a friend told him about UCLA’s UniCamp. “I thought, if UCLA could do it, then USC can do it too, only we’ll do it better!” Healy recalls. “And I think we are doing it better.”

While UniCamp is run by paid staffers, Troy Camp has always been operated by student volunteers. There are no paid employees (unless you count faculty adviser Heather Larabee, assistant dean of students and director of campus activities). Running the entire camp are a pair of co-executive directors and 12 executive board members, all USC students. Another 77 volunteers serve as counselors. A camper-to-counselor ratio of less than 3-to-1 allows USC students to provide attention to and form personal bonds with every child.

Another difference: While UCLA takes lots of kids – around 1,100 a year – for one of eight weeklong camp sessions, Troy Camp treats a smaller number of kids – roughly 170 to 200, depending on funding – to a year’s worth of activities, starting with the visit to Forest Falls and culminating with graduation. “We have activities for the kids every month for a truly year-round program,” Healy says. “The counselors really get to know the kids.”

And it shows. As graduation nears, the kids scramble around to get the counselors to sign their Troy Camp T-shirts. Soon the colorful shirts are covered front and back with nicknames, such as “Loafer,” “Pilgrim,” “Bowflex” and “Kung Pao.”

“They are like celebrities to us,” says Diamond Robinson, a fifth-grader at 52nd Street Elementary School. “I want to grow up to be just like them.”

Troy Camp accepts kids from 19 neighborhood elementary schools. Prospective campers submit a short essay on why they want to participate. Their teachers make recommendations, identifying the students they think most deserve to go to camp as a reward.

School principals value Troy Camp so much that they let kids miss a week of classes to attend. Camp is held in late May so it won’t interfere with USC student volunteers’ summer jobs or travel plans. (It doesn’t interfere much with the elementary school curriculum either, because camp takes place a week or two after the California Standards Tests, when schools typically take a well-earned breather.)

“Even for young children, school is so test-driven these days,” laments Lynn Brown, principal of Lenicia B. Weemes Elementary School. “Troy Camp shows children that there’s more to life than tests. I wish all our children could go.”

In its 62 years, Troy Camp has become a South Los Angeles institution. Polly Bravo, office tech at Weemes, has seen three generations of her family go through the program. Her younger brother and sister took part in Troy Camp in the early 1970s, her daughters went about a decade later, then her grandson had his turn in 2009.

“Troy Camp is the most beautiful thing in this neighborhood,” Bravo says. “Kids look forward to it all year. If you didn’t go to Troy Camp, it was the end of the world.”

Saroya “Joystick” Sandiford fondly remembers her time as a camper during her third and fourth grades at Weemes. When she entered USC as an undergraduate, becoming a Troy Camp volunteer was her top priority. Now a junior, she was a counselor for the first time last May and a volunteer the year before.

“Troy Camp gave me the greatest two years of my life,” Sandiford says. “I wanted to give back to others from my community and to show kids that there is more out there than our neighborhood.”

There is no shortage of like-minded students. About 500 apply each fall for approximately 80 counselor spots. Each counselor ends up volunteering about 250 hours a year.

Even though it may be difficult to achieve the grades and test scores needed to attend USC, involvement in Troy Camp can make a child and his or her family aware of the many USC community programs at their disposal.

Former Weemes student Jairo “Tinkles” Hernandez followed his two years at Troy Camp by joining USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI) program in middle school and staying on through high school graduation. By taking coursework at USC, dedicating his Saturdays to learning, and receiving 800 extra hours of instruction in mathematics and language arts, Hernandez completed the rigorous NAI program. NAI graduates who gain admission to USC – as Hernandez did – are awarded a four-and-a-half-year, full-tuition scholarship.

“Troy Camp for sure helped me get to college,” says Hernandez, now a senior who completed his second year as a counselor in May. “Whenever I got tired of school, I thought about all the people who had pushed me. I didn’t want to let them down.”

Another former camper, José “Dr. J” Avalos, has never forgotten the impact Troy Camp had on his life. After graduating from UC Berkeley and completing medical school at UCLA, he returned to Troy Camp as its camp doctor.

For the past three years, he has taken time off from work as a family physician at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center to bandage scrapes, treat insect bites and take care of asthma attacks during the weeklong excursion.

At the first night’s campfire in May, Avalos introduced himself as a former camper who once was just like them. Before going to Troy Camp as a fifth-grader from Norwood Street Elementary School in 1990, Avalos had never stepped foot outside South Los Angeles. College was never talked about in his Mexican immigrant family. His mother’s goal was for him to be the first in his family to graduate from high school.

“The big impact Troy Camp had on my life was to open my mind to going to college,” Avalos says. “I always wanted to give something back in general, but particularly to the people who helped me. By the end of the week, you really see in kids’ faces the huge impact. Troy Camp gives kids the gift of possibilities.”

Questions or comments on this article?