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OJJDP News @ a Glance

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention's Monthly Newsletter

Camp Mariposa Offers a Lifeline to Children Affected by Substance Use

Group photo of Camp Mariposa mentors
Many Camp Mariposa mentors are former campers. Campers and mentors alike commit to spending at least one year with the program. (Photo courtesy of Eluna.)

President Biden proclaimed January National Mentoring Month, recognizing the power mentors have to positively influence and guide children. OJJDP awarded $92.5 million in fiscal year 2023 to increase and improve mentoring opportunities for youth, and plans to expand mentoring services for children of incarcerated parents. The following article highlights one of the many programs OJJDP supports.

Anger filled and overwhelmed 9-year-old Kobe Hills, making him distressed and frustrated—he didn’t know how to cope with it all. At home, his father’s substance use framed family life, bringing chaos. For Kobe, the turmoil manifested as defiance—especially at school. “Most of the time, I would just knock my head on the walls and leave the classrooms whenever I felt upset,” says Mr. Hills, now 20. 

At a counselor’s suggestion, Kobe began spending weekends at Camp Mariposa, a year-round addiction prevention and mentoring program offered by Eluna, an OJJDP grantee. The counselor—from the Jewish Family and Children’s Service (JFCS) of the Suncoast, an Eluna partner in Sarasota, FL—thought the program might help him learn to process his emotions. It did. He found refuge at Camp Mariposa, surrounded by children with similar home lives and nurtured by caring mentors he found he could trust. 

“I liked that everyone, no matter where we came from, we were all there for essentially the same reason,” Mr. Hills says. “A lot of us [kids] felt that we were the problem.” Over time, camp “essentially” became his home, he says. 

Every youth at Camp Mariposa is affected by a close family member’s substance use—for 91 percent of campers, that person is a parent, says Brian Maus, Eluna’s director of Addiction Prevention and Mentoring Programs. Camp activities include the traditional—swimming, hiking, roasting s’mores around a campfire—interspersed with lessons from evidence-based programs aimed at preventing substance use and suicide. Youth spend one weekend at camp every other month for at least a year; during alternate months, campers and their families come together with mentors for activities like bowling, swim parties, and barbecues. 

Eluna founded Camp Mariposa in 2007, initially targeting children ages 9 to 12. As more “graduating” campers asked to continue, Camp Mariposa introduced a peer-mentor component. Campers and mentors alike benefit, Mr. Maus says. Campers look up to teens and young adults who understand their challenges firsthand—credible mentors—while mentors grow in self-confidence, knowing they are helping kids like themselves. Eluna introduced teen-specific programming in 2019, extending programming to adolescents up to age 18—a time when the temptation or pressure to experiment may be especially strong. Today, Camp Mariposa serves nearly 800 youth ages 9 to 18 in 18 locations in both urban and rural communities nationwide, supported by 300 trained adult mentors and 50 peer mentors—including many former campers.

Camp Mariposa was Kaia Clark-Toth’s childhood haven—“a safe space to connect and also be a kid,” where everyone understood what it meant to have a mom struggling with substance use disorder, she says. But the lure of drugs became irresistible for Ms. Clark-Toth as a young teen, when she and her mother began using together. She became addicted. From ages 14 to 17, Ms. Clark-Toth attended five different rehab programs. She says recovery took hold in 2019, after her mother died from an overdose. 

Two years later, Ms. Clark-Toth returned to camp as a mentor, encouraged by a JFCS counselor to believe in herself and share her unique wisdom. “You’ve been there. You’ve felt how they felt,” she remembers the counselor saying. “You can connect with them in a way that no one else can.” Now 22, she is in her third year as a trained adult mentor.

Camp Mariposa succeeds because it removes kids from their daily lives and teaches them to support and rely on each other, Ms. Clark-Toth says. Campers become a community. They face challenges—like ropes courses—together, conquering their fears as they develop confidence to share their stories. 

“They’re safe” at Camp Mariposa, Ms. Clark-Toth says. “No one is judging them.”

Date Created: January 24, 2024