While many people come to Santa Barbara for the summer to party or work on their tans, the teens with Project California spend their days planting, painting, and, of course, playing.
Project California, a 21- or 28-day program offered by the New Jersey-based organization Rein Community Service, places teens with community organizations across Santa Barbara. For $5,000 to $6,300 a trip, teens volunteer for four hours a day, five days a week. They stay in the dorms at UCSB, eat at the dining commons, and explore the area’s attractions.
Campers can choose to work with a variety of organizations — focuses range from animals to children to the environment — where they’re expected to contribute like any other volunteer. At the Humane Society, volunteers not only help maintain the facilities by planting and painting, but are each given his or her own dog to train for the duration of the program. At the Boys and Girls Club and at Girls Inc., volunteers work as counselors-in-training and get to know the children and staff.
The community service experience began as an offshoot of the company’s regular Teen Tours, which take campers throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe on safe, wholesome summer travels. The organization began its service projects with a trip to Hawaii, and expanded to California shortly after, in 2008.
“You get a different sort of kid — because their parents are paying almost the same amount of money for them to give up a sizable chunk of their week to volunteer,” said Jarred Marlett, a Rein counselor at the Boys and Girls Club.
Marlett heard about the community service tour while working as cook for Rein’s Teen Tours last year, and jumped on the opportunity. “I love the community service aspect and the type of teen that’s willing to do that.”
Like most of the campers, Jordan Stuart, a high school senior from Florida, heard about the tours through friends who had done the program in the past. Stuart, a ranked tennis player, gets one-on-one tennis lessons in the afternoons. After their morning volunteering hours, teens can sign up for a wide range of activities, from guitar lessons to golf lessons to cooking classes with the UCSB dining services staff, and from kayaking trips to trips to the museum. On weekends, the group does extended travel to Los Angeles and Palm Springs.
Of course, while the teens have a lot of fun, every counselor and director at Rein will tell you that by the end of four weeks, the teens also learn a lot about themselves. “It’s a growing-up situation,” said Erica Boyar, a Rein adviser and former Project California director.
Because most campers come from fairly affluent families, the program is not only a chance to explore a new city, but also the working world. “Most of these teenagers have never worked in their life,” continued Boyar. “[They’ve] never painted, never planted — it’s really amazing to see them transition from the first week of ‘this is hard’ to ‘I don’t want to leave!’”
At the Unity Shoppe, Stuart and seven other volunteers help in the warehouse, stocking shelves and helping clients at the nonprofit’s central distribution facility. The organization operates a “free” store where low-income families can get food, clothes, toiletries, and other supplies they might not be able to afford otherwise. On their first day interacting with clients in the store, volunteers, who had so far only worked in the warehouse, were reminded by Barbara Tellefson, president and director of operations at Unity Shoppe, about the significance of their contributions.
“Barbara gave us a lot of good advice, and I’m still taking it all in,” said Stuart. He’s inspired by the fact that Tellefson, despite never attending college, is both a successful businesswoman and an advocate for community service. “Seeing all this is an eye-opener, and it makes you appreciate what you have,” said Stuart.
One high school sophomore from New York, who switched from Rein’s environmental service program to work at the Unity Shoppe, said: “I’m very surprised by the number of people here who really need help. I thought Santa Barbara was a very wealthy community, but there are a lot of people here who are very lower class.”
Jared Karson, a Rein staff member, said that although campers don’t always voice it, the bubble they’re in when they enter the program is “burst a little” by the end. “You can see a lot more patience, and their eyes are opened a little — [they see] that it’s not all perfect, even in a place like Santa Barbara,” said Karson.
While the Rein’s Teen Tours never stay in any one place for more than a few days, their Community Service Tours emphasize long-term commitment and growth. At the Boys and Girls Club in Goleta, teens work with the same group of kids every day for their entire time with the program. This summer, all of Rein’s three-week volunteers, except for two, decided to stay on for an additional week.
“It’s very interesting, unpredictable, expeditious,” described J.P. Southern, a 15-year-old participant, when he turned around to watch as another volunteer, waist-deep in a crowd of kids, removed a boy from a cylindrical trash can. Like most of the teens, Southern is on his first tour; this is his first experience with community service and spending time with underprivileged children. Southern didn’t expect the kids to be so open, affectionate, or energetic. Now, he said, he has “eight best buddies.”
Boyar can attest to the impact of established relationships on volunteers. “In my first year, on the last day we were working with children, I saw a 15-year-old boy actually break down in tears because he was so upset about leaving the 10-year-olds he was working with,” Boyar said. She still keeps in touch with teens and counselors from the first year of the program. One of the campers from 2007 is even organizing a reunion.
“Last year a girl called her parents and had baby dolls bought and sent to [the Storyteller program] on the last day to hand out to all the children,” recounted Boyar.
The final day of volunteering is always a sad one, as many of the kids at the Boys and Girls Club don’t realize the Rein volunteers are leaving for good. “Some of the three-weekers left, and so there were no more [female volunteers] in one of the kindergarten groups,” said counselor Keren Page. “The girls in the group seemed so misplaced — they’ve become part of these kids’ lives.”
As for the campers themselves, even though they signed up for community service, they leave with a different idea of what it means to volunteer. “I just thought it was community service, and so at the beginning I didn’t appreciate the time I was spending with [the kids],” said Emma Smith, 15. She worked with 5th and 6th graders at the Boys and Girls Club. “I took it for granted — I know I’m going to miss them, but I didn’t think I was going to miss them so much.”