Stanislaus Y's High Sierra facility eases kids into camp

A bit of life came back Monday to Modesto's YMCA facility, which closed in February because of financial woes. About 50youngsters and their families brought laughter, shouts and sleeping bags to the McHenry Avenue parking lot for the bus ride to Camp Jack Hazard, the only local Y program still operating.

The camp in the Stanislaus National Forest above Sonora began its 85th summer season this week with Rookie Camp. The three-night experience for youngsters ages 6-14 is meant to be a short introduction tocamping for those who "may not be ready to spend a full week away from home," said Joe Lawlor, camp director.

The camp is a labor of love for Lawlor, who first attended the camp when he was 6. The 23-year-old has been on staff for eight years and volunteered his time early in the summer to make sure there were enough funds and resources to open the camp this year.

"We usually have five or six weeks of camp. This year, we have three," he said.

He credited "a dedication from staff members and community support" with keeping the camp open. "We didn't have working cash at the beginning of the season," he said.

In 2002, there were two endowment funds for the camp, one with $140,000 set up in 1997 by Bart Bennett and a second with more than $200,000 created in 1991 by Robert Babington Sr., a former camp director. A third fund, set up by William Eakin to build a cabin for disabled children, had $52,136 in 2002. But under former executive director Steve Smith, who worked for the YMCA from 2002 to 2007, those funds dwindled from $407,698 to $41,790; the loss came because the money was used as collateral for unpaid loans.

YMCA board member Allen Layman said Monday the remaining endowment money is "still there," but that no money was designated for camperships or camp operations this year.

The sale of the Y's building, once listed at $3.6 million and reduced to $2.95 million, was expected to pay off the organization's debt of $2.18 million and replenish the endowment funds. Realtor Brian Velthoen said an offer is on the table, but said he couldn't reveal the purchaser or terms. The deal could be final in a month or two, he said.

In the meantime, Camp Jack Hazard is open for business.

Tents and granite

The camp was begun in 1924 by Jack and Buena Hazard, who "brought young men out to the woods," Lawlor said. They slept in tents and cooked over open fires; campers these days sleep in rustic cabins and eat in the large dining hall that includes a commercial kitchen and a staff meeting room. There's also a ropes course, a pool, a granite climbing site and an arts gazebo.

"We're in the middle of the national forest, so we're surrounded by trees and granite and natural rock formations," said Lawlor. "It's very beautiful."

About 130 campers are signed up; the camps can hold a maximum of 230.

Foster children made up a large percentage of past campers, about 120 a year. But the subsidized program was cut out of the state budget this year, Lawlor said, so only a handful of the children who have sponsors will attend.

Five more children will get full camperships from the Jack and Buena Foundation, which was set up earlier this year. Foundation chairman Skippy Williams of San Francisco said the group hopes to raise enough funds to pay at least partial camperships for five more campers this year and expand those numbers in the future.

"I was a camper since I was 9 years old," Williams said. "I didn't live in Modesto, but I'm a second-generation camper. My dad grew up in Winton and went to Camp Jack Hazard when he was a kid and really enjoyed it. He wanted us to have the same experience. I have lifelong friends I met there. We want to make sure other kids can go to camp."

Friends and ukuleles

A positive experience is what the camp is all about, supporters said.

Vickie Higginbotham of Modesto attended the camp for several summers beginning when she was about 7.

"I was there in the golden era when Mr. Babington was there," said Higginbotham, 66. "You would be on a really hot trail and feel the weight of your sleeping bag, and he would appear and your burden would be lifted. He would pat you on your shoulder and tell you that you were doing a good job.

"The rest (of the camp) was focused on growing as a person or self-reliance. ... You were just away from civilization for a while, away from electricity even, and you had to turn to yourself and find out about yourself. I think of it so fondly. Even now, I'm in a ukulele band because we had a camp counselor who had a ukulele and could sing."

Sergio Pineda of Arcata worked on the camp staff for four years. The 25-year-old saw the impact on the youngsters, especially the three-day backpacking trip taken by every weeklong camper.

"We were able to show them camping skills, like how to build a fire and read maps," he said. "This was the only opportunity for some of these kids to go out there. They come away with a different perspective."

Lawlor agreed.

"First of all, kids will have fun. That's our No. 1 rule," he said.

"I think a really important part about camping is the environmental part. A lot of our campers have never been in the mountains before, and they're pretty stunned and amazed by it."

Lawlor has high expectations for the camp's future.

"I am very hopeful we'll be open next year," he said.

There are enough volunteers for the rest of the summer, but donations to help fund the camp in the future or for camperships are very welcome, he said. Those can be sent to Camp Jack Hazard, P.O. Box 4219, Modesto 95352 or to the foundation at

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or