Over two decades ago in the dense undergrowth of the Los Padres National Forest, a Catholic society established a wilderness retreat for disadvantaged, inner-city kids who, for the most part, had never ventured into California’s vast backcountry.
Today, the Circle V Ranch Camp is a weeklong home to children ages 7 to 13, 90 percent of whom qualify for the minimal fee of $60. Patrons of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul pay the remainder.
Ray Lopez, the camp’s director, has served with the camp organization for the past 17 years. He described his admiration and pride in “literally watching these kids grow up.”
“It never ceases to amaze me the magic of the camp,” said Lopez. “It’s amazing how much of a difference six days can make.”
The camp itself is owned and regulated by the U.S. Forest Service, and St. Vincent’s operates the property for nine weeks from late June through August. Deprived of video games, television, and iPods for the duration of their stay, campers are guided through a host of traditional activities, including hiking, swimming, craft-making, and field trips to the beach.
“They go home with a greater appreciation for nature. Once you experience it, you want to take care of it, and we are always reminding our kids to honor the earth,” said Lopez.
Last week, the camp hosted its first-ever flute-making program taught by John Zeretzke, a 30-year art education veteran who has spent the past three years teaching his craft at similar camps, like Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Camps and Ronald McDonald Camps, as part of his program, Flutes Across the World.
“Part of the reason why I chose flutes is because everybody relates to them,” said Zeretzke. “You make it accessible; you make it easy. It’s really hand-to-hand, heart-to-heart, eye-to-eye. Flutes can change a life and save a life; music has the ability to change lives immensely.”
Zeretzke spent five hours a day for three days in the Santa Ynez Mountains that surround St. Vincent’s, where he instructed campers on flute technique and design. The components—cheap bamboo and PVC pipe from Home Depot—were decorated with permanent markers during two-hour workshop sessions. Each flute was adorned with a symbol of peace or friendship, inspired by a packet of mystical patterns provided by Zeretzke.
On the first night, he held a campfire performance and encouraged camper participation as he used African and South American instruments to create a cacophony of rain-forest noises.
The more than 127 flutes made by the campers in just three days will serve a higher purpose than simple entertainment for campers’ long car rides home. In the workshops, each camper made two flutes, one for themselves and a second, identical one for an unknown “buddy” in Haiti who will receive the musical gift next fall. Inside each gift flute, the kids at Circle V enclosed a secret scroll with a message about themselves, a greeting, or a blessing.
In what will be his first trip to the earthquake-ravaged nation, Zeretzke plans to hand out the flutes made at St. Vincent’s as well as an additional 12,000 others to children in refugee camps and towns.
“For a child to not only get a flute, but to know that somebody cares about them, it is a huge gift,” he said. “I’m going to be hitting camps, refugee towns, and churches. We are going to be linking up with humanitarian organizations.”
Zeretzke stated that he already has a fair number of contacts in the region and that he will be working with the humanitarian group Knightsbridge International. Though it will be his first trip to Haiti, he described the giving process as it was related to him by others who have lent their support.
“So many people want them [flutes] that it can almost be a mob scene. We want to show that it’s coming from an individual who made it for them. That’s very important. Often you have kids [in Haiti] who have no musical instruction at all.”
Back at Circle V, Lopez described a process of youth mentorship that truly comes full circle—kids who join the camp as children and preteens often return to give back as counselors several years later.
“They start at seven and they keep coming back,” he said. “Many return to volunteer for a week and later become counselors. It’s kind of a big cycle where they are giving back after attending Circle V. Counselors bring a lot of energy and creativity to our camp and the campers really look up to them as role models.”
Perhaps Lopez described the camp best when he said, “For many of the kids, it really gives them hope to be somebody.”