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Board Support & Communications Specialist
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Before Camp Everytown, Milpitas High School junior Eigen Edward Gacho was full of negativity and traumatic experiences. But attending the four-day residential, intensive leadership development program based on core values - respect, acceptance, and responsibility - allowed him to not only open up in a way he never has before but share his experiences about being bullied, and truly heal and grow.
Gacho was one of 44 Milpitas High School and Calaveras Hills High School students, accompanied by six staff members, who headed up the hill March 28 to Camp Harmond in Boulder Creek.
“The tenets of the program are for those attending to be willing to openly share their prejudices, views and beliefs surrounding race, religion, social position, gender, religion, culture, law enforcement,” said MHS Assistant Principal Cheryl Rivera, who has attended the camp since approximately 1999. “Those attending must be willing to ‘hear’ and ‘empathize’ with what's being shared and discuss strategies to ameliorate bullying, sexism, and other campus concerns.”
Students participated in activities that identify opportunities, obstacles, and solutions to human relations issues specific to their school, according to Silicon Valley FACES, which runs the program.
Seniors Tariq Bracy, Verenice Gomez, Lanazia Greene, and Brianna Williams; juniors Travis Lloyd and Gacho; sophomore Carlson Cabatotan and Josue Torres; and freshman Lailani Esparza recently met to discuss the camp, and the impact it made on them.
“I just think it’s cool because it teaches you not to take life for granted, not to judge other people so quickly, ” Lloyd said. “…now I get to take into consideration and take the time to get to know a person to actually see what they’re like.”
Williams said a highlight activity for her was the ability lunch.
“We counted off numbers and when we went into the cafeteria, some people were blindfolded, representing the blind, some people had one arm, and people had no hands,” she explained. “So we had to adapt. It put us in other people’s shoes… seeing how they have to go through life.”
She added that during another activity, specific people from different ethnic groups were asked to walk out. While they were gone, the remaining people in the room would say stereotypes about the ethnicities and write them down. Then those people would have to return, look at the posters, take them in, and express their feelings about what was shared.
Gacho said he enjoyed hearing about different cultures and Lloyd said he enjoyed the gender exercise.
“There are many highlights,” Rivera said. “The gender exercise is profound. With facilitation, both genders develop a deeper compassion and empathy for one another. Learning that you are ‘not alone’ is major. Students see that there are many feeling and/or encountering similar obstacles. This is for staff as well as students. Delegates (as students are called) form a close bond with their peers as well as the adult staff who attend. Truly ‘learning’ about another person's culture is enlightening and makes the attendees thirst for more.”
Bracy said he didn’t know what to expect of the program, but is happy to have attended.
“It opened my eyes to different stories being told, and knowing that I’m not the only one with problems going on in my life,” he said.
Rivera said the school has participated in the program around 25 years, with every year being as valuable as the last.
“I believe that I gain valuable experience every time I attend this camp,” she said. “I love seeing our students making lifelong connections and most importantly empathy for others. Each group that attends brings enthusiasm and positive energy back to campus. The smaller family coming back to campus can and does impact the attitudes and beliefs of not only their inner circle, their inner circle extends well beyond the 50. I've seen students turn their lives around and define purpose for their own next steps. I have also seen and heard students address racial slurs with a non-threatening positive demeanor. “
The group acknowledged just that, saying they are experiencing life differently upon their return, specifically in how they are with their friends.
“It’s made me also realize to not be afraid to be a leader,” Bracy said. “Some people just like to run with the crowd. It’s made me feel like it’s alright to have your own platform, your own voice because people are going to follow what you do, especially if it’s good.”
For Williams and Esparza, the name calling has completely stopped.
“I think it’s made me put an impact on my friends,” Esparza said. “…It’s affected them because they watch what they say because they know I don’t like that.”
The program has grown through the years, Rivera said, explaining the group has received additional financial support for students to attend.
FACES has teamed Milpitas High with other schools and the experience is shared through the lens of "privilege versus non privilege." An example of this, she said, is when students attended with Palo Alto High School and Fremont High School.
“Students have preconceived views about the ‘haves’ vs the ‘have nots,’” she explained. “Learning that the student experience is similar in many ways is profound. There are exercises that clearly negate many of the stereotypes our students believe about gender, disabilities, ethnicities.”
When the students returned from the camp the following Monday morning, they returned with much more than new friends meeting around the MHS flagpole to welcome the new delegates back to campus. Any current or past camp attendees stood together for a "Welcome Home" morning "song fest."
“The students attending, for the most part, are a mixed bag of jewels when they arrive,” Rivera said. “Coming back down the hill they are all ‘diamonds’ eternally connected.”
For more information about Camp Everytown, visit the website.