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July 23, 2014

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LIVING LAS VEGAS:

Summer camp in the city: Kids laugh, play; teenagers learn, grow

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Leila Navidi

Program director Ylonda Dickerson teaches a class on geography during Summer Break Camp 2013 at Aloha Vegas Mobile Home Park in North Las Vegas on Tuesday, July 30, 2013.

Summer Break Camp 2013

Program director Ylonda Dickerson teaches a class on geography during Summer Break Camp 2013 at Aloha Vegas Mobile Home Park in North Las Vegas on Tuesday, July 30, 2013. Launch slideshow »

The room is barely larger than a classroom, but the energy in here rivals that of any school.

Fans buzz as an air-conditioning unit struggles to keep up with the 30-some little ones creating noise and sweat in this common room at the Aloha Vegas Mobile Home Community.

Feather and tissue art projects spruce up one wall. Toy blocks and beanbags transform a carpet into a play space. And five tables circled with chairs serve as ground zero for craft or snack time.

As the 5- to 12-year-olds scramble for seats, their ringleader, Ylonda Dickerson, delivers jars of play dough while instructing teenage camp counselors. The kids eye the jars, antsy to open them and discover what’s inside.

But Dickerson knows something her teenage helpers might not realize.

“Show them what to do,” Dickerson says. “Some kids have never had play dough.”

The statement cuts to the core of the scene. In this small room, Dickerson hopes to bridge two vulnerable populations: children in a low-income community that lacks basic resources and teenagers needing jobs and responsibility.

This is a summer camp run by Operation Teens Pitch In, the brainchild of Dickerson, executive director of the nonprofit Valley View Community Cares.

Sporting bright pink hair, Dickerson exudes boundless energy — giving hugs, receiving hugs, sweeping the floor, reading books, dispensing food, wiping away tears and praising homemade works of art. She considers this hectic schedule her calling in life.

She grew up in Valley View, the North Las Vegas neighborhood that sits just west of Interstate 15 between Lake Mead Boulevard and Carey Avenue. In fact, Dickerson still lives in her childhood home on Englestad Street, within walking distance of the Aloha Vegas Mobile Home Community.

“This neighborhood has always been kind of a secluded, at-risk community,” she said. “It was gang-affiliated, drug-affiliated. A lot of us in this neighborhood were raised by single parents.”

Dickerson, 47, is no stranger to the struggles. She gave birth to her first child at 13 and was the mother of five children by the time she was 21.

For years, Dickerson grappled with her mission in life.

“I just felt like I was a big mistake,” she said.

Then an idea hit her: start a child care center aimed at helping young mothers. Dickerson formed her nonprofit, but the child care center never quite came to fruition.

Instead, she began helping children and teens with gang affiliations. Now, she also works at the Walnut Community Center as a member of Clark County’s gang intervention team, mentoring troubled teens to divert them from a life of drugs and gangs.

“I love doing things in my community,” she said. “It’s like taking care of what’s in your backyard.”

A conference her nonprofit hosted several years ago, however, left Dickerson with a troubling realization. The neighborhood children didn’t idolize their parents, firefighters or doctors as much as they looked up to the teenage gang-bangers hanging out on their streets.

Dickerson secured a $15,000 grant this year from North Las Vegas to start the summer camp and address that problem. Then she hired six teens, some of whom have had skirmishes with the law, such as home invasions or weapons charges.

She believes they’re good kids who need focus and responsibility to keep them out of trouble and on a better path in life. The teens — clad in bright yellow shirts — earn $250 every two weeks for serving as camp counselors three days a week.

Like most of the teens, this is 17-year-old Chavriea Davis’ first summer job. It’s her friendly but booming voice that often corrals the youngsters when she leads them in a chant of, “Do what I do. Say what I say.”

Last year, Davis found herself in a situation that could have turned out much worse. She attended a party without her parents’ permission, and gunfire rang out at the house. No one was injured, she said, but police took everyone’s names for future reference.

Her job as a teen counselor is a “better opportunity,” she said.

“I’m learning how to have more patience, more responsibility — not just taking care of myself,” she said. “I have to make sure all the kids are OK.”

But it’s not all about structure and authority, as 17-year-old Jovany Pouncil has learned.

He refers to the cluster of boys at his table as “my buddies.” They move from activity to activity together and even share a special handshake.

“They look up to me, and they enjoy being with me,” Pouncil said. “I like that.”

The children come earlier and stay later — evidence that the concept is working, Dickerson said.

Forty-five children enrolled in the summer camp, which is free for anyone living in the mobile-home community. Guest speakers get the kids moving with activities like karate and ballet, but Dickerson also weaves reading, geography and math into her curriculum.

“We’re keeping their minds fresh,” Dickerson said.

Camp ends when summer does, but each child will leave with a backpack filled with school supplies — and perhaps a new role model.

“We always talk about issues and problems of young people, but we’re not coming up with things to solve the problems,” she said. “Where are the programs to provide a service to change that? If there are no programs, we have to create programs like this.”

Next year, Dickerson plans to expand the summer camp to three more at-risk communities in North Las Vegas, with this year’s teens serving as leaders for a new crop of camp counselors. She hopes to observe a cycle of positive choices among the children and teens as a result.

“A lot of (teens) are making a lot of bad choices, and a lot of them are dying,” she said. “We need to stop that.”

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