(Photos by Mary-Justine Lanyon)
By Mary-Justine Lanyon
Going off to summer camp is a tradition children have looked forward to for years. But it was an experience not available to children like Lucia Laufeld’s special education students. Seeing them left behind made her very sad.
Laufeld, with the help of the Rotary Club of Los Angeles and the Crippled Children’s Society (now AbilityFirst), looked for a location where a camp that would meet the needs of special campers could be built. In 1946 they secured a long-term lease for Forest Service land at the top of Playground Drive in Crestline.
That first year, while the buildings were being erected, the first campers arrived and stayed in tents.
On July 16, camp director Kelly Kunsek welcomed alumni campers and staff for a celebration of Camp Paivika’s 75th anniversary. The campers participated in many of the activities they enjoy during a camp session: swimming in the pool, karaoke, nature Bingo, archery, arts and crafts.
As Kunsek, who first arrived at the camp in 1985 and has been the director for 28 years, called out the decades since the 40s, campers and staff members cheered loudly. The camp’s theme this summer is Celebrating Through the Decades.
Since the camp first opened, it has only been closed for two summers due to COVID. But during that time, Kunsek and her staff created Camp Paivika @ Home so campers and staff could still interact, virtually.
Kunsek was surprised when Gary Jimenez, the current president of the Rotary Club of Los Angeles, called LA5, presented the camp with a check for $10,000.
Some current campers, like 24-year-old JoJo of San Bernardino, are fairly new. He attended camp for the first time a year ago and will be there again this summer. His favorite activity: getting to ride a horse. He also enjoyed archery, karaoke and acting.
JoJo’s mother, Tonya, said coming to the open house prior to sending her son to camp “put my mind at ease.” She agreed there is some anxiety about putting the care of your “child” with special needs into the hands of strangers. That anxiety was quickly quelled when she met those strangers, who became friends.
Other campers, like Vinny from Chino, have been coming to Camp Paivika for years. His first camping experience was in 1999, when he was just 10. He has been to camp every summer since, except for when COVID shut the camp down. In addition, Vinny has participated in 11 three-day winter ski trips with Camp Paivika and the United States Adaptive Recreation Center.
Vinny’s mother, Elenor, is also a camper, having participated in the Mom’s Retreat since 2001. “It’s so important for Moms to have some respite,” Elenor said. “I’ve made friends with many of the ladies. This camaraderie and support can only come from those who share the understanding of our daily challenges.”
Last year, when Camp Paivika held a friends and family session, Elenor’s daughter and grandson accompanied Vinny to camp.
This family’s story does not end there. Elenor’s other son, Joseph, met a young woman at college in Iowa whom he recruited as the camp nurse. Brianna, who is from Edmonton, Alberta, was excited about traveling to California but was surprised when she found herself in the forest on a mountain rather than at the beach. In the first hour she was at Camp Paivika, she met a counselor named Matthew. Today they are married and have two young sons.
Brianna became a school nurse and said her experience at Camp Paivika helped her with her special education students.
One member of Camp Paivika alumni wanted to be sure to connect with is Sydney Kunsek, Kelly’s daughter. “I’ve never lived anywhere but at camp,” Sydney said. She was born during camp in 2002 and grew up in what she calls “a very diverse and unique family.”
For the last couple of years, Sydney was the head cook at camp. This year she is the unit director, supervising all the staff and the campers.
As for the name Paivika, it was chosen by the first campers and means “dawn” in the language of the Cahuilla tribe that once lived in the surrounding mountains.
This summer, Camp Paivika has already held three sessions and has another three sessions planned as well as a friends and family session.
For more information on Camp Paivika and to make a donation, visit www.CampPaivika.org.