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Monday, Aug. 4, 2008 | Chelsea Hepner jogs around a wooden octagonal corral filled with middle-schoolers. “You can’t be in a spot for more than three seconds!” she bellows. “Scoot up!”

She flits around the edge of the pen, the special area designed for playing ga-ga, a game of open-handed dodge ball that originated in Israel. She’s teaching a clinic that helps kids hone their hitting skills and compete for a spot in a tournament the next day. “Who needs water?” she shouts to a crowd of flushed cheeks and sweaty foreheads.

Hepner is a camp counselor at the YMCA’s Camp Marston, a sleep-away camp nestled in the forest outside Julian. She’s 21, a Huntington Beach native and a student at San Francisco State University.

But for the summer, she has come to San Diego to work, and those other parts of her identity seem distant. Hepner is immersed in camp. She’s traded sleepy summer mornings for 7:45 a.m. allegiance-pledging. She sports three bright, handmade woven bracelets on each arm and two more on her left ankle. She wears a yellow tank top and brown shorts. Her nails are covered in chipping electric blue polish and her reddish hair is plaited in two braids. She peers through big dark glasses in the blazing Julian sun as she cheers campers through the day.

It’s a more-than fulltime job. She gets some rotating time off after the kids have fallen asleep, but for the most part, she is always at work. She makes a tough decision every day: How to spend her morning hour off. She could take a nap or a shower. She could call her family. She has to choose wisely. From Monday to Friday, most of the other 23 hours are spoken for.

At camp, Hepner’s job is to live a week with campers — some of whom are away from home for the first time — as a kind of big sister, nurse, teacher, coach and friend. She sleeps in a cabin with 10 girls, shepherds a team of campers through group games, eats with the kids, directs some activities and sports, swims in the pool with campers and is rarely more than an arm’s length from a kid at any time.

Hepner, a first-timer, loves camp.

“I wish I grew up as a camp kid now,” she says.

At its core, the act of prying Southern California kids from freeway-crossed cities and planting them in the woods for the week fits the camp’s namesake.

George Marston was a San Diego forefather who championed parks and open space. He put up money to hire a landscape architect to draft the first plan for Balboa Park, according to the San Diego Historical Society. He gave money to help start the Torrey Pines and Anza-Borrego Desert parks. In the vein of the “smokestacks versus geraniums” warring visions for San Diego’s growth, Marston was labeled “Geranium George” in two unsuccessful bids for mayor. Marston emphasized planning and civic beauty over business, a debate that has endured in the region.

Camp Marston is surrounded by trees. At the center is a cluster of lodges for sleeping, a dining hall, a pool and a basketball court. A large field plays host to games for the whole camp. Up the hill near Lake Jessop is a Frisbee golf course and an archery range.

For decades since the camp was founded as the Pine Hills Camp For Boys in 1921, San Diego parents have driven their kids down the windy roads to the Julian hills and dropped them off at the camp for a week away from regular life.

These days, camp means separation from gadgets for kids who have been sending cell phone text messages for as long as they can remember. And counselors like Hepner are there to teach them something new to do, to braid friendship bracelets, to hike, to perfect their ga-ga technique, to swim.

Hepner’s job is to juggle, coach, hug, cheer up and supervise. She tries to strike a balance between directing and letting kids work things out for themselves. She will intervene in case of cliques, attempting to make sure no kid is left out.

Hepner keeps one eye on the ga-ga game while gushing about camp to a visitor. The highlights she’s collected in six weeks as a counselor come out in a rush. There are clinics and free swim and the night hike, and they give the kids Wintergreen Lifesavers to chew in the dark. “It makes a glow, have you seen that?” she asks.

She interrupts herself and glances at a kid running toward her with his head tilted back. Hepner sends him and his bloody nose to the restroom, directing a buddy to follow him there to make sure he’s OK.

And she picks up where she left off with an eager description of pony rides and the candlelight ceremony on the last night of camp and Carnival Night, where everybody dresses in a theme. Pirates are the theme this week, she says.

Hepner is a child and adolescent development major. In her recreation classes, she heard stories from her classmates of sleep-away camp, and decided to apply for a job for the summer. She found Camp Marston in Julian and joins a few dozen counselors for the camp’s various programs for 200 kids aged seven to 16 each week. Hepner is one of two counselors for a cabin of 10 girls aged 11, 12 and 13.

The game of ga-ga wraps up a few minutes before 11:00 and Hepner walks down a hill to an open air amphitheatre for her next clinic, the drama clinic. A couple dozen kids assemble on the benches and launch into a smattering of different songs and games while they wait for the rehearsal to start. One especially vocal kid in a blue shirt sings the national anthem on the side of the stage and tries to be nonchalant as he glances to make sure he’s getting some attention from those within earshot.

A girl in a long maroon t-shirt with the camp’s logo printed on it comes around the corner, her arm looped in the elbow of another girl who carries a red and white walking stick. The camper population this week includes some blind and visually impaired kids from the Braille Institute. One of those campers, a girl with braids and a pink t-shirt, sits on a bench singing the alphabet backwards.

“I challenge someone to a rap battle!” a boy shouts. Three kids start competing to say all of the states in alphabetical order the fastest.

“OK, everyone go on stage!” Hepner yells.

The show the campers are working on is a sound performance — a dramatic interpretation of what it would sound like to be on a pirate ship.

But Hepner’s co-counselor, the one with the script and the vision for the performance, is running late. So Hepner shifts gears and leads them in a few camp songs, one about disco and another about smelly socks. Finally, at 11:32, a messenger comes to say the other counselor is ill. Hepner starts from scratch.

“I think we’re going to wing it,” she says. “Either way, it’s going to be awesome.”

A girl who knows the words to some pirate songs teaches the lyrics to the group. “We pillage, we plunder, we look for the loot, drink up, me hearties, yo ho!” the kids drone from stage. Hepner stands below, waving her arms like a conductor.

“Who can make a good wooden leg sound?” she asks. A blind girl named Natalia donates her walking stick to the cause. “Who has ideas for gunshot noises?” Hepner follows up.

The performance starts to take shape just as it’s time to go wash hands for lunch. The kids promise to come back on their free time to finish the skit.

After filing into the dining hall, the kids sit with their cabins. A director leads them in a song as a way of saying grace. It’s the only religious element of the camp, Hepner says. Most of the camp centers on personal betterment — on setting goals to achieve responsibility, honesty and respect.

The kids wait for the signal to send a runner from each table to pick up the food, served in big bowls, family-style. Today lunch is chicken wings and macaroni. There’s a salad bar, and tofu and curry rice and meatless chili for vegetarians.

Food was one of the only things Hepner was worried about before she came, especially because she’s a vegetarian.

“It’s surprisingly good,” she said. “I had my first sloppy joe here, they made a vegetarian option.”

Hepner tells a story from the previous week, when a 13-year-old girl realized she’d never gone so many days in her life without a cell phone or television.

Hearing that, a girl at the lunch table asks Hepner if cell phones are bad.

“I don’t think they’re bad, but I don’t think we need to use them as much as we do,” she says.

After lunch, the kids file out to their cabins for a siesta. Hepner sits down on a couch in the common room of the lodge.

It can be tough, she says, to live and work in a small place with a bunch of other counselors. She’s made some good friends. But there can be drawbacks.

“Everyone knows everyone’s business, and there’s a little bit of that good, gossip, drama camp stuff,” she says.

Sometimes she leaves for the weekend, but most of the time she stays and her personal and work lives remain enmeshed, because her co-workers are her social outlet, too. It’s hard to remember to pay bills or to explain to her family exactly what camp is like, because life here under these trees is so different than life in Orange County or in San Francisco.

And even when she does make it off-campus with her fellow counselors, it’s not like reentering her life as a city girl.

“Have you seen Julian?” she jokes. “Every time I go in there I feel like I just went back 500 years. It’s cute, but it’s kind of funny, too.”

Living rurally does help her save money. Before she says how much she earns, Hepner makes sure you know she gets a place to stay, three good meals a day, and that she has nearly nowhere to spend her money. Those disclaimers made, she says she earns $37 and some change per day. It works out to pay checks of about $430 every two weeks.

“You can’t get paid hourly for this — we work 24 hours a day,” she laughs.

After siesta, it’s time for snacks, which the campers ordered at breakfast. The kids file up to some outdoor benches and wait for their ice cream sandwiches, Gatorade and cheese curls. The campers are loading up on sugar for the rest of the afternoon, when they’ll practice a skit, swim in the pool, have free time, eat dinner and perform their skits.

Eating a purple frozen Otter Pop, Hepner wonders aloud if she’ll ever make it back to camp. She wants to work at camp again next summer, she says, but there’s that little reality that she’ll be graduating from college. She knows she’ll work with kids in some capacity. And she says she’ll take this summer with her.

“Even if you’re here for just a week, you’ll remember,” she says.

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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