Tom Sawyer Camps senior counselor Yanei Ochoa, right, leads "Frank the Tank," ridden by Dylan Epinger, 6 of Studio City, during horseback outing at Hahamongna Watershed on Wednesday. About 450 children are participating in the 10-week program.

Tom Sawyer Camps senior counselor Yanei Ochoa, right, leads "Frank the Tank," ridden by Dylan Epinger, 6 of Studio City, during horseback outing at Hahamongna Watershed on Wednesday. About 450 children are participating in the 10-week program. (Raul Roa/Valley Sun)

Driving down Oak Grove Drive between La Cañada High School and Hahamongna Watershed Park, most would never guess deep within the park is a mini-army of 400-plus kids enjoying an old-fashioned summer.

For the past 84 years, Tom Sawyer Camps, originally located in Laguna Beach, has been inviting kids to "unplug," immerse themselves in nature and spend their summer outside the vast reach of technology. The camp's two current locations are in Arcadia and here in La Cañada's own backyard.

Anyone in Hahamongna Park between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. can find kids hiking, swimming, building forts, rock climbing, horseback riding, kayaking or working their way through a rope course.

"It's all simple stuff that kids like to do," said four-time camp veteran McKenna Cassidy, 12. "You don't miss TV or anything like that when you're out here. There is something everybody likes to do."

Campers learn how to appreciate and protect the environment through baking cookies with a solar oven and get their hands dirty digging into nature without an electrical socket in sight.

"We are totally unplugged; there is no Nintendo or computer games," said Sarah Horner Fish, executive director. "We are completely outside, having physically active days, playing a lot of games where everyone is involved."

The camp avoids organized sports where the goal is to eliminate one another, Fish said. The camp gravitates toward games that engage entire groups like capture the flag, kick the can and Jedi dodge ball, a camp favorite that allows everyone to play the entire game.

"Kids build social skills while they are here," said Assistant Director Jojo Mariani, who has been involved in the camp for 16 years. "They realize the way they behave within a community makes a difference on how other people view them."

Twelve-year-old Carlos Sazo has been coming to the camp for nine years. If it wasn't for camp, most of his summer would be spent inside watching TV, he said. Instead, he gets to interact with all his friends and make new ones, the highlight of camp for him. His dream is to become a counselor at the camp

The counselors are the key to the success of the program, Fish said. Seventy percent of them were once Tom Sawyer campers themselves. Counselors had a 98% return rate this year.

"We kind of joke that it's our camper-to-counselor career path," Fish said. "It's so wonderful because they remember what they loved about the camp and the counselors they looked up to, and they can give that back to the new campers."

Stina Woods is a counselor who will become a teacher next year. Tom Sawyer Camps has been a part of her life since she was 4. When she was younger, she struggled through the school year, feeling lost, and camp provided an escape for her.

"Camp was the place I felt accepted and part of a group where all of my weird attributes weren't just accepted but celebrated," Woods said.

Mariani, a teacher at Park Elementary in Alhambra during the school year, said she discovered a desire to work with kids through her time at Tom Sawyer Camps over the summer.

"I tell people I'm a summer camp director, and the rest of the year I'm a teacher," Mariani said. "This is the best job in the world … We get to come here and play all day long, be outside and just be a kid again."

There is still availability for the camp's second session, which spans Aug. 2 to Aug. 20 or 27, depending on the age group. For more information on the camp, including prices and signing up, visit Tom Sawyer Camps' website at http://www.tomsawyercamps.com or call (626) 794-1156.