Around an inner-city school overflowing with economic strife, and daily personal and familial struggles, summer football camp was a precious light in the middle of an otherwise dark tunnel.
When Brian Walker took over the Tempe High football program two years ago, summer school and conflicts and the inevitable coaching change meant 24 kids made it out of the heat and up to Snowflake for a week filled with practices and team-building activities.
Last year it was back up to 48 kids making the trek to Prescott Valley, practicing three times a day, going to movies, playing mini-golf and spending a little time with Prescott High School kids.
A road trip to cooler country and weekend entertainment is basic stuff for most East Valley schools and kids, but for many of Walker’s players, “it was like Christmas in a way, maybe better.”
This year, it’s a blackout.
While most E.V. schools begin annual treks north and east in the next one to two weeks, the Buffaloes will spend July 27 and 28 camping inside their gym, practicing on their field. An estimated $8,000 needed for nearly 50 kids to go to camp fell nearly $2,000 short.
The team tried alumni donations, and doing all the things most other schools use for fundraising: Gift cards, merchandise, school athletic apparel, players working at a Casino Night.
But the neighborhood dynamics and economic swoon won, as more kids had to take up jobs last spring because their parent(s) lost theirs.
“It’s been a lot more difficult this year,” Walker said. “I completely didn’t expect it to happen. We implemented some team building inside Prescott Valley — mini golf, movies, Prescott H.S. football team doing social stuff — and they loved that a lot.
“They were obviously upset.”
Tempe is one of the hardest-hit cities in recent years, though at nearby McClintock, coach Matt Lewis said the Chargers did two fundraisers (another is coming later this month) that generated $4,500, or nearly triple the amount of recent years.
But even though schools such as Mesa, McClintock, Westwood and Paradise Valley raised enough money for camp, the financial burdens continue to mount.
Desert Vista is heading to Winslow for Camp of Champions on Sunday and come back on Friday, while Mountain Pointe is heading to Camp Tontozona Aug, 12 through 14 for some team bonding a break from the heat.
The Thunder, which used fundraising to pay for the trip, return to Winslow after spending last season in Eagar and the Round Valley Dome.
“It’s a great way to get the season started,” senior linebacker Mike Arredondo said. “It’s more than team-bonding; it’s family bonding because we basically live with each other inside (Winslow High’s) gym.”
The financial struggles are nothing new for some schools, and it’s not getting easier.
Westwood didn’t go to camp last year. The Warriors looked at going out-of-state, but it required up-front payments six months in advance that were too expensive for most kids to afford, and by the time that plan was scratched, the in-state destinations up north were full.
This year, the Warriors are ponying up $280 each for a week in Snowflake. This time, it was decided when the calendar turned to 2011 to give kids more time for fundraising, and most in-state camps offer more flexibility with payments.
Westwood kids did a lift-a-thon for donations via weightlifting, washed cars and several kids were set up with neighborhood houses that needed landscaping or yard maintenance.
“For some of our kids it’s huge,” Westwood coach Greg Mendez said. “It’s a huge deal to get on a bus and go outside of here and get away from families and the city. To have kids serve meals to each other or carry one another’s cleats, little things like that... Last year we didn’t go and I kicked myself in the butt for not forcing the issue more. Kids remember football camp.”
It’s $280 for six days in Snowflake, and while 68 JV and freshmen went ahead of this week’s varsity contingent of 60, it’s scratch-and-claw for nearly two-thirds of Mesa’s kids every year.
The Jackrabbits began in late winter with letter-writing campaigns, sold merchandise and did a sponsorship program for each player. Parents or community members who sponsor a football player get to hang out with the team during picture day, receive a couple in-uniform photos and spend a future pregame both in the locker room and then the sidelines Friday night.
“Finances are the big problem all the time,” Moore said. “The fact someone doesn’t have money isn’t reason not to go. We don’t have anyone back out on us because of money. We’re going to be financially tight. Anything we do is about putting away money to go. It’s that important, not so much for football but it’s everything else.”
The neighborhoods around Paradise Valley aren’t as Scottsdale-wealthy as the city name suggests, but the Trojans are one of the few who pulled enough together to go to Whittier College in California next week.
They sold cookie dough, took advantage of tax credits and were fortunate enough to have a couple huge volleyball tournaments where players put together and took apart 26 volleyball courts for $175 per court.
A couple families even paid other kids’ $400 fees so they could go, and those kids will pay back that money in installments. A couple kids who raised more than what was needed donated their remains to teammates who needed help.
“I’ll never let a kid not go because of money,” P.V. coach Donnie Yantis said. “I’ll go and beat the bush for kids to earn money. We could stay at P.V. and run around or go up north and sleep on gym floor, but a lot of kids have never been to California or the ocean and may never get there (again). It’s an experience.”
Meanwhile, Tempe High will use its gym floor and cafeteria, and maybe put a ban on electronic devices to keep kids’ attention and temporarily get them away from the outside world.
Walker and Marcos de Niza coach Roy Lopez have had a couple conversations about trying to combine their teams at one camp (usually the more kids who go at a time, the lower the cost per kid). So perhaps next year things will turn back around enough for many kids to earn a preseason (re-)treat.
“That team unity and bonding is going to be missed, I can’t emphasize it enough,” Walker said. “You don’t get that in familiar places. Put them in a situation they’re not familiar and that’s the best way to reach them.”
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