Written By Szilvia Gogh, Miss Scuba, Photos By Nicci Freeman
As a California based stunt woman and scuba instructor, I get to work on exciting movie sets with actors like Drew Barrymore, boss around LAPD Dive Team Leaders during training and swim with sharks in remote reefs around the world. Yet my most anticipated activity every year is the Chance for Children Summer Camp.
In the early 90's Greg Bonann, a Los Angeles County lifeguard and creator of the world famous television series Baywatch, talked about the concept of having a "Baywatch theme related camp”. A year after hearing him talk about the idea, Tai Collins a freelance writer for the show, spoke up. She asked Bonann if he was serious about the summer camp and he was.
Collins, with a background in mission work and after school programs, offered to help. They started the Chance For Children Summer Camp for kids who live in poverty and around gang influenced violence. They focus on kids who could easily choose the wrong path, without productive and creative outlets to help develop and discover their dreams. Their focus became the "at-risk" youth of inner city Los Angeles.
Gangs start recruiting kids as young as 7 years old. Statistics show that as many as fifteen million children nationwide have no place to go after school. These children are more likely to be victims of crime or to participate in bad behavior. We believe that if you give a child something positive to do, they in turn will develop the ability to dream big and learn to create goals in life.
Greg's vision was to give these children a chance to experience the beach, fresh air, and a place to run. He wanted them to learn to swim, be water safe, have knowledge of CPR, and have happy memories to hold on to.
About seven years ago, Eileen Kenny, one of my scuba diving students and close friend, told me about her volunteer work at the Chance For Children Camp.
Coming from a formal “Eastern Block” Country (Hungary), I often feel the need to share my fortune with those less fortunate and asked Eileen to talk with the camp organizers about bringing SCUBA into their camp.
The following summer I invited my diver friends and fellow instructors to come and help me introduce the 30-40 kids, in the camp, to the underwater world and share our love for the oceans with them. I also approached my training organization, PADI to donate towels and scuba toys for the event. Everybody was excited and on board with my plan to give back to our community and to do something for the pure joy of others, rather than making profit.
When our team of ten divers, with a variety of scuba experience (ranging from freshly certified to PADI Course Director), showed up for the first year at the Chance For Children Camp, I was not sure what to expect. But I immediately felt overwhelmed with the power of the adventure.
Some of the teenage kids have lived their whole lives in Los Angeles and have never been to the beach, never had a bathing suit and
consequently never learned how to swim. Yet, they did not hesitate a moment to believe that we would keep them safe and they jumped into the pool upon our invitation.
Our Divemasters and Instructors from Ocean Adventures took one child at a time, explained the basic fundamentals of scuba, practiced the underwater signals we use to communicate, held their little hands and took off for their first scuba encounter.
Many of the kids were fearless and were willing to immediately submerse themselves in the pool. Their reactions to the weightless underwater world was a joy to watch. Many of them emerged from the water with the biggest smiles I have ever seen.
Others were more hesitant and pointed their thumbs up after a few fin kicks. This is the signal for “let’s go up”. After a few reassuring words like, “you are doing great,” they were ready to go back under and indulge in their underwater environment. I think they just wanted to make sure we were really paying attention to their needs and not ignoring them. Once they felt safe and in good hands, their bodies and dispositions would relax. Then, usually within minutes, they wanted to venture towards the deep end of the pool.
The difference between teaching privileged and underprivileged children to scuba dive is something I have always had hard time explaining to someone who never experienced it first hand. To many of the fortunate kids, it is just one of the numerous activities their parents scheduled for the summer. But for many of the “at-risk” kids, that same one hour of underwater practice is one the best things to have ever happened to them.
In some strange way I feel that I get more out of the interaction with these kids than they do. This is the seventh year my friends and I participated with the Chance For Children Camp.
Helping these kids overcome their fears and doing something nice for them fills me with warm satisfaction that money can not buy. For some reason, I do not get that same fuzzy feeling when teaching children of the same age who were born to more fortunate families. I have come to realize that “at-risk” children have the ability to be happier and feel more appreciative than their more fortunate counterparts.
We also talk with them about our lives, telling them stories of our amazing adventures and reinforcing the philosophy evoked by Winston Churchill’s famous words “Never, never, never give up!” A while ago, inspired by this summer camp, I created a “Never Give Up” dog tag necklace. Much more than just beautiful accessory, this inspirational jewelry is very meaningful to me. While other jewelry genres may be used just for fashion or fun, inspirational jewelry can also hold special meaning for its owner. The mind is a powerful tool. Believe something and it can happen.
Over the years Tai and Greg have watched their dream blossom. They have now watched a generation of youth grow into adulthood, seeing the lives they have touched and changed firsthand. One of the things they are most proud of is that the majority of their volunteers are young people who have come through the program and then return to give something back. They know the powerful impact that this camp can have on a child’s life.
The Chance For Children Foundation is dedicated to giving children the opportunity to understand their potential in life. We know that kids may go where there is excitement... but they stay where there is love. Interested helping? Read more about the organization: http://www.achanceforchildren.org