About 50 high school students in Loudoun County’s Camp REAL program for at-risk youths hosted an anti-bullying festival Aug. 6 at Sugarland Elementary School.
The students organized games, music and activities for younger children, including tie-dyeing T-shirts, face painting and supervising as they petted a miniature horse. Many participants, including members of the Camp REAL program for elementary school students, signed a pledge to help stop bullying.
Camp REAL (Raising Education, Achievement and Leadership) is a partnership of the Loudoun Department of Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Developmental Services, the sheriff’s office and the public schools. The groups started the program in 2007 to encourage positive behavior in youths identified as having a higher risk of gang involvement or other problems.
A three-year grant from the governor’s office provided funding to start the program, said Judith Romberg, county manager of prevention and intervention.
“When we got this grant, it was to take some higher-risk kids and . . . have them doing community service, so that they would get an attachment to the community and feel like they were a part of the solution and not the problem,” Romberg said.
After evaluating the program, she and her staff concluded that the four-week camp was making a difference.
“They were thinking about their community, their school, their worth to the community, what they want to do in the future,” Romberg said. “We started to see changes, so we kept it going.” When the grant expired, the county began funding the program, she said.
Some students join Camp REAL in the fourth or fifth grade, Romberg said, and many continue with it through middle and high school. Some of the students who joined the elementary program in 2007 stayed with Camp REAL through high school and returned as volunteers.
“That’s really a testament of what it means to them,” she said.
Camp REAL participants learn life skills, including the importance of fitness and nutrition, said Harry Kumah, a prevention and intervention specialist for Loudoun. Because the elementary and high school camps meet at the same time, the high school students take what they have learned and teach the younger children, he said.
Camp members also perform community service, such as picking up trash and washing cars to raise money for charity, he said.
“We get the high school [students] to do things to uplift the community, to give them ownership,” Kumah said.
At the end of the high school camp, the students are rewarded with a trip to King’s Dominion “if their behavior is good,” Romberg said.
Camp REAL also strives to strengthen relationships between youths and law enforcement officers, organizers said. Sheriff’s deputies teach sessions on topics such as Internet safety and knowing your rights.
“Kids see the officers and work with them closely,” Kumah said. “They get to see the officers as real people. Because of that, it’s built a trust for law enforcement.”
Bullying is a topic in the camps every year, Kumah said.
“It’s not a mystery that there’s bullying going on, but that’s why we’re doing this event — to help bring an end to it,” said Camp REAL participant Melvin Portillo, 18, of Sterling. “If there’s anyone that is having issues, we’re hoping that they can find someone at this event to speak to, maybe an officer or staff member.”
Portillo, who recently graduated from Park View High School and will attend Virginia Commonwealth University in the fall, said that Camp REAL taught him “that helping others is more satisfying than anything else.
“It’s not just about yourself,” Portillo said. “It’s about giving back to the community.”
Barnes is a freelance writer.