Opinion: Tuolumne funding approved… But who are Berkeley’s happy campers?

Tuolumne camp is a positive, often transformative, experience but it must serve a more diverse population.

Last week, the Berkeley City Council voted to appropriate $3.3 million to help reconstruct Tuolumne Family Camp which was destroyed in the 2013 Rim Fire. In the question whether to rebuild, Tuolumne Camp has a lot going in its favor — a beloved tradition as Berkeley’s family camp since 1922, a committed and vocal group of supporters lobbying for its resurrection, and the idea of a resource that has aided generations of Berkeley families to commune with nature. What’s not to support?

I agree that summer camp is a positive, often transformative, experience. Particularly for city dwellers, the week-long retreat is a time for fellowship, discovery and relaxation. Tuolumne Camp appears to offer all of this and more. Unfortunately, it is serving only about 2,400 Berkeley residents each season (based on a 4,000 yearly attendance, 60% of whom currently live in Berkeley). That is slightly less than 2% of the Berkeley population. In addition, 80% of the campers have attended for 6+ years, many for generations.* With this high level of legacy attendees, the pool of participants grows smaller still. One has to ask if this is a good use of $3.3 million of taxpayer funds. (Cost estimates by the city show that figure could rise to $5.3 million.)

Who attends Tuolumne Camp? A review of the Friends of Tuolumne Camp Facebook page reveals an extremely homogeneous group of campers. All the photos depict white families enjoying camp life. I found one African-American individual among the gallery of images posted. These photos seem not to reflect the racial diversity of Berkeley — neither do they represent the economic or social makeup of our city. The visual evidence suggests that Tuolumne Camp is a very segregated experience.

As a Berkeley homeowner and taxpayer, I became curious to learn what programs and financial assistance the city offers to low-income Berkeley families to attend Tuolumne Camp. I was especially interested to learn about the city’s outreach efforts to publicize this great resource and its many benefits. Did they spread the word via schools? Through churches or neighborhood groups? From our council members? For many, the camp appears to be among Berkeley’s best-kept secrets.

I am still waiting to hear back from the Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Department on specific outreach programs and support for low-income families to attend the camp. Unlike the other facilities that fall under Berkeley auspices — Cazadero Camp and Echo Lake Camp — each of which presented the City Council with specific programs they’ve established to serve at-risk youth and families in need — Tuolumne Camp has made no such claims.  (Note: Berkeley Day Camp has programs that serve low-income children.)

At last Tuesday’s City Council meeting, councilman Kriss Worthington acknowledged the legitimate questions of inclusivity and access to Tuolumne Camp, but summed up his belief that the relatively small contribution from the city of $3.3 million could leverage upwards to $54 million in insurance and FEMA funding — and described it as “a good investment.” The question to ask is … who will reap the rewards?

The Council unanimously approved the expenditure. With this green light, Berkeley’s Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Department appears committed to reconstruct Tuolumne Camp to its former glory. The Friends of Tuolumne Camp, an impassioned group of citizens, is lending its support. As the camp is rebuilt over the next few years, it is an opportunity to envision what a city camp can be — a respite from urban life, a place for learning and a way to engage with community. These formative experiences should be made more available to all Berkeley residents. Nowhere is this needed more than in the city’s underserved neighborhoods.

One only need to look to the city of Richmond to find an innovative, socially relevant program called YES Nature to Neighborhoods that provides low-income youth and families access to the natural environment. Berkeley would do well to follow their lead. The investment Worthington spoke of should be applied to fostering the next generation of environmental stewards. How will people fight to save our forests if they have never had the good fortune to live among them?

Let’s hope that Tuolumne Camp is reconstructed to better serve today’s Berkeley and the rich diversity of its citizens. After all, each of us is paying for it.

*Data sourced from survey conducted of 440 Tuolumne Camp participants by Berkeley Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Department in Spring 2015.

Cameron Woo is a longtime Berkeley resident, business owner and outdoor enthusiast.