Youth circle around a countertop island in a small kitchen learning to bake a cake as others converse under a grove of trees on an outdoor patio. Minutes later, with baskets and shovels in hand, the teens fan out across the farmyard to clean bedding from the pigpens and gather eggs in the henhouse.
There are no televisions, mobile phones or fast food anywhere in sight, but these campers don’t seem to notice. The magic of Hidden Villa – the 1,600-acre nonprofit organic farm and preserve in Los Altos Hills – sets in, giving modern adolescents a memorable experience with lasting impact.
“Overall, it just has the best vibe around it possible,” said 17-year-old Hidden Villa camper and counselor-in-training Steffan Salas. “It’s really a nonjudgmental place where you can be yourself. … It’s pretty hard to find a place like that.”
Salas, a high school senior from Menlo Park who has spent 11 summers at Hidden Villa Summer Camp, noted that camp counselors and other campers serve as an important support network as he navigates the pathway to adulthood. Last summer he returned to Hidden Villa for his first “official paying job” as a residential camp intern.
“It’s kind of cool to move on from a part of childhood and start acting and fulfilling an adult role here and in life in general,” he said.
Whether at day camps for first- through fourth-grade children, or wilderness camps in the Santa Cruz Mountains for eighth- through 10th-graders, molding young people into responsible citizens is an important component of the Hidden Villa experience, which has roots in promoting social justice since it hosted the nation’s first multiracial camp in 1945.
According to Hidden Villa Camp Director Nikki Bryant, staff members are trained to be educators who can facilitate conversations that encourage curiosity and critical thinking. Evening gatherings at the campfire allow campers to reflect on issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, family and the environment.
“We show them how the actions they perform are contributing to the well-being of the community they’re in,” Bryant said. “We reach for growth and connection in a way that the world often fails to do for people.”
Contributions from the Town Crier Holiday Fund and other donors enable youth of all socioeconomic backgrounds to participate in the Hidden Villa camp experience.
Nearly 50 percent of the 1,200 students who attend camp each summer are supported by a scholarship. Bryant said a stockpile of camp necessities like sleeping bags and swimsuits donated by local residents are also available, a measure that ensures a positive experience for every camper.
“We want (youth) to be somewhere where they can wander around without having to worry about the complications they’re used to in their communities,” she said. “Camp provides you with an opportunity to talk with one another, resolve conflict and be confident in what you do – something our society just doesn’t have a lot of systems for.”