Hidden Villa summer camps preserve legacy of social justice

Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
Hidden Villa camper Lily Ballow, 11, cleans the pigpen, one of her daily farm chores.

When the metal gates of Hidden Villa swing open to campers each summer, eager youth descend on the 1,600-acre campus in Los Altos Hills for an experience that plants the seeds of social justice.

Those social-justice roots run deep: Hidden Villa pioneered the first multiracial camp in the U.S. in 1945. Frank and Josephine Duveneck developed the summer-camp program with an eye to promoting multicultural social activism and environmental education.

The Duveneck family purchased Hidden Villa in 1924, aspiring to create an environment that transcended cultural, racial, social and economic barriers. They provided an example by condemning racism and providing safe refuge for Jews fleeing the Nazis and Japanese-Americans returning from internment camps.

“What (the Duvenecks) were doing while building community was also allowing these kids to have shared experiences with one another,” said Daniel Chmielewski, Hidden Villa community programs manager.

Long-standing tradition

Hidden Villa continues to uphold its original mission by hosting summer-camp participants from many different backgrounds.

According to camp director Nikki Bryant, approximately half of all campers receive scholarships, a gift that allows youth from diverse neighborhoods across the Bay Area to venture to the farm’s rural environs for a day, a week or even longer. The Town Crier Holiday Fund supports Hidden Villa and its camp scholarships.

The camp environment allows young people to discover themselves and experience personal growth through reflection and goal setting.

“It’s really a nonjudgmental place where you can be yourself,” said 17-year-old Steffan Salas of Menlo Park, who completed his second year of counselor training at Hidden Villa this summer.

Salas, like many of the older campers at Hidden Villa, has found a family among the counselors and campers he’s met and plans to pay it forward as a counselor next year.

With an 80 percent retention rate, it is not uncommon for youth to spend 11 or 12 summers at Hidden Villa before assuming leadership roles.

Seth “Simba” Simas returned to Hidden Villa after earning his teaching credential four years ago and currently serves as program head for residential and backpacking camps at Hidden Villa. As a former camper, he committed himself to the experience not only to boost his skills as a youth worker, but also to instill values that encourage campers to care about the world around them.

Simas’ impact on campers is evident in the ways they translate the social and environmental values learned at camp into action. One camper, Simas said, contacted a Subway representative to request that the sandwich chain buy locally grown produce for its franchise locations.

Deeper meaning

The Hidden Villa camp experience goes beyond hiking and toasting marshmallows. Residential camp participants immerse themselves in a sustainable community and are accountable for shaping their own experiences.

Activities center on five key areas: the Duveneck Legacy; Race and Class; Gender, Sexuality and Family; the Environment; and Farm and Food. Older youth are assigned chores like milking goats and gardening. Opportunities for reflection are built into the daily schedule.

For younger participants accustomed to living in urban enclaves, farm work and encounters with nature prove enlightening. But the most critical and enduring element of camp, according to Bryant, is the building of relationships and the meaningful conversations that follow.

“What this summer camp does in particular is let people connect to people – the opportunity to talk with one another, resolve conflict and be confident in what you do,” she said.

Bryant said building and coordinating the right team of program leaders and counselors for the summer camp programs – ranging from day camps for elementary-school-aged children to multiday backpacking hikes through the Santa Cruz Mountains for teenagers – is akin to directing an orchestra. Although some of the camps’ successes are linked to months and years of planning and training, it’s the passion of dedicated counselors that makes it a transformational experience, she added.

“We work with staff to teach them how to be educators so that they can facilitate these conversations on weighty topics,” said Bryant, noting that many parents observe that their children return from camp with a more mature and confident perspective on the world.

Bryant believes that when you connect with youth at their level, it sparks their curiosity and triggers critical thinking in a way that can lead to success later in life.

“That circle of giving is what makes peace in our world,” she said. “And that is ultimately what we’re trying to do – bring about peace, to educate people to think about this world and ask questions.”

For more information, call 949-8850 or visit

Hidden Villa Summer Camps - Photos by Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier

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