Former Woodlake police chief’s Lemon Cove ranch hosts last camp for low-income, at-risk youth on its 20th anniversary
By Reggie Ellis
LEMON COVE – Last weekend marked many firsts and one last at a ranch hidden in the hills of Lemon Cove. For most of the 90 third, fourth and fifth graders it marked the first time they had ever been camping outside of their living room, the first time they had ever ridden a horse (or even seen one up close) beyond a quarter-operated machine, the first time they have rowed a boat other than in song and the first time they left their home without a family member.
But when Tulare County’s Loop bus made its way around the large curve to the ranch home of John and Minerva Zapalac, filled with students from Earlimart, Richgrove and Ivanhoe Elementary Schools, it marked the last time there would ever be a Camp Zap.
Canoeing was one of the many outdoor activities that local school children experienced for the first time at Camp Zap in Lemon Cove. Submitted photo.
On May 19-20, the Zapalacs held their final Camp Zap after 20 years of hosting the camp on their 20-acre ranch off Avenue 324 south of Highway 198. Minerva said she and John had talked about 2018 as the year they would decide if they want to continue the camp. Minerva said they decided early this year that the May weekend would be their last camp out of respect for their retirement plans and their dedicated volunteers.
“If will give us a chance to get away from home and the volunteers were a little burned out,” Minerva said. “It’s a big part of our lives that we will miss but it’s kind of relief to be able to move on to new things.”
Minerva said a loyal group of volunteers comprised of Woodlake High School students, Woodlake teachers, members of the Woodlake Lions, Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs. Those volunteers helped the Zapalacs raise money, make needed improvements to the campgrounds, serve three meals and provide a great camping experience for kids free of charge, three to four times per year for the last 20 years.
“They really believed in what we were doing and they put in countless hours of work to make the camp a success,” Minerva said. “We can’t thank them enough for what they did.”
The first Camp Zap was a picnic held for a classroom of Woodlake school children as a reward for good behavior in 1998. Within the first seven years, the camp had grown into a powerful tool educating about 120 youth on the importance of staying in school, making positive choices and respecting their parents and other authority figures like police officer.
As the former police chief for the City of Woodlake, Zapalac would invite many of his officers out to the camp to play games and supervise activities for the kids. It quickly grew into an overnight adventure that left an impression on each of the kids.
“It started as a way for the kids to get to know the officers and see them as something other than a person who writes tickets or talks to them when they are in trouble,” Minerva said.
Originally just for Woodlake students, Zapalac began reaching out to other districts in 2005. In the spring of 2006, Woodlake students were joined by kids from Stone Corral Elementary in Seville and students from Lindsay Unified School District.
The camp not only educated kids about behaving better but also learning about doing things without electricity, having fun without TV or video games and playing outside in nature. At the camp, students were able to ride horses, play horseshoes, go canoeing and hiking, pet goats, chickens, sheep and cows, as well as play volleyball and basketball.
“Maybe it hasn’t hit me but as of this moment it feels good,” Minerva said. “Maybe in a few months I’ll miss it but I think we made the right choice.”
The camp has done more than just allow low-income and at-risk youth go camping, it also teachers them to make good choices in life. Early on in the program, Zapalac reached out to juvenile court justices who would come talk to the kids about how poor choices can lead to living a life in jail. As the camp grew to several times per year, Zapalac began having former gang members speak about how joining gangs had ruined their lives and the lives of their families.
“Hopefully it changed some lives or even saved some lives,” Minerva said.
Minerva recalled one story a few years ago when she ran into a former camp attendee at Party City in Visalia. She said the young man was a “not a nice kid” and had trouble following the rules and getting along with other kids at the camp. But by the end of the weekend, he had so much fun he came back for his fourth and fifth grade year and even argued with his parents to be allowed to go back for his sixth grade year, something the camp doesn’t allow. When the boy graduated from high school, he almost didn’t go to college but shared with Minerva that he kept hearing the message from Camp Zap, “I have to make the right choice,” she remembered him saying.
“I wanted to cry when he told me but I didn’t,” she said. “I didn’t want to embarrass him but I love hearing those stories and I share them with all of our volunteers.”
Just days before the last camp, Minerva said she received an invitation from a former Camp Zapper who is now graduating from nursing school. Minerva recalled that the girl came from a dysfunctional family and told her that the confidence and independence she learned at Camp Zap helped her to make it on her own and to balance life, work and school.
“You don’t really know what kind of difference something like Camp Zap makes until years later,” Minerva said.
The Zapalacs did form a non-profit, the Camp Zap Youth Foundation, to carry on the camp if they ever wanted to retire but the camp would have had to be relocated to avoid liability concerns of having a third party use their property to hold the camp. Without better options, Minerva said they hired an attorney to dissolve the foundation and end the camp and its name for good after discussing it with the non-profit’s board of directors last year.
“When you do three to four camps per year, you are always planning for the next camp,” she said. “John has needed to spend more time at his North Dakota ranch and you kind of feel like you can’t leave your house for too long because of all of the planning.”