But things changed quickly after a tutoring session with a young boy who was having trouble reading the word “bed.” Mintz hinted to him, “You know, it’s what you sleep on,” she recalls. That explanation didn’t register with the boy, who told Mintz where he sleeps: on the floor.
The boy’s life was far from unique. Mintz discovered that nearly all of his classmates lived in bleak conditions and had very little interaction with the world outside their neighborhood—a place where violence and drugs are part of growing up.
“In many homes there’s not one trustworthy, emotionally stable caretaker,” says Mintz, a broker with Marvin Gardens Real Estate in nearby Berkeley. “These are homes where kids are coming up like grass in the cracks of cement. No one says it’s time for bed, no one says it’s time to get up for school.”
Mintz was determined to show the children the culture, beauty, and opportunities that surround them in the San Francisco Bay area. So she began taking 10 of the school’s neediest kids on weekly outings to museums, parks, theaters, and festivals. The final week was an overnight camping trip, complete with marshmallow roasting. It was the clear highlight of the kids’ summer, Mintz says.
So in 2000 Mintz founded Youth Enrichment Strategies, a nonprofit organization that raises money from corporations, community donors, and grants to send low-income kids to summer camp. More than 1,000 children have gone so far—365 this summer alone. Campers range in age from 8 to 16. Most attend Coronado Elementary, nearby Verde Elementary, or the local high school.
Camp gives kids like 14-year-old Royce Hughes—whose friend was injured by gunfire early this summer—the chance to leave behind the stresses of the neighborhood and tap into skills they never knew they had. “To me, the best parts this year were meeting new friends and the river rafting trip,” says Hughes, who spent six weeks at camp. Part of Hughes’ time was spent completing leadership training; he says his goal now is to become a camp counselor.
Janell Wheat, 11, says her favorite part was hiking and learning how to canoe, while Zadia Saunders, 13, discovered a passion for archery. “I really fell in love with it,” she says.
YES raises approximately $250 per child per week of camp, no small task. But as campers and their parents will tell you, the experience is invaluable. “When they go away, they’re no different from the more well-off children at camp,” says Zadia’s mother, Demetria. “It puts them on a level playing field and lets them know there’s a different way of life. When they come back, they have a whole new direction.”
To encourage parents who were reluctant to let their kids go to camp, Mintz began organizing special weekend camping trips for families. On one trip, a singer from Trinidad and a local artist held workshops, and a naturalist led hikes. Families also participated in conflict-resolution sessions—and all of it was translated for the 60 percent of parents who speak only Spanish.
The weekend getaways have been a great bridge builder, Mintz says. “They’ve also made school a friendlier place for parents. We know from research that when parents come to the school and get involved, their kids do better.”
This fall Mintz will kick off an after-school leadership program that features martial arts and lessons from successful African Americans in the community. Mintz wants to teach kids that power doesn’t come from hurting or killing; it’s from knowing who they are and what they can accomplish in life.
“Diane has a very deep connection with every one of these children,” says David Shaw, a grant writer for YES and president of Artbeat, a nonprofit performing arts group. “She’s giving them a bigger vision of what they can be.”
“When they’re at camp, the kids know that they have to follow rules or they’ll be sent home. They’re taking responsibility for their actions.”
—Don Lau, vice president of operations at the local YMCA