85: I felt seen, valued and safe at camp with Mechale Mency

Listen to this article

Have you been to a Salvation Army summer camp? If so, I know you remember it well. 

Camp is a place where kids discover inner-strength, learn valuable life skills, make lifelong friends, appreciate the outdoors and are mentored with love and kindness. 

And Mechale Mency remembers it well. 

In fact, she recently thought of Camp Gilmore while watching a TV show. After a Google search, she found the Calabasas, California, camp that she attended in the late 1970s is still open. So she emailed a thank you to its director. 

Mechale is from the Los Angeles-area, and for three summers she spent a week at Camp Gilmore at no cost to her family. Did you know every summer thousands of kids attend one of 12 Salvation Army camps across the West, many of them on scholarships funded by generous donors? 

Mechale is one of them and she’s on the show to share what she remembers of camp and the experience she had there that made her want to be an experience for others today. Now, as the principal of Garfield Elementary School in San Diego, she’s out to make sure kids feel seen and valued, and learn to value others—just as she did at camp. 

Show highlights include:

  • The song Mechale remembered from camp. 
  • More about her story.
  • What she remembers about camp and the experience of it.
  • How she felt at camp.
  • What Mechale learned at camp that has stuck with her. 
  • How it has influenced her work in education, as a principal. 
  • Why she hopes every kid could go to camp. 

Listen and subscribe to the Do Gooders Podcast now. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

* * *

Christin Thieme: Mechale, welcome to the Do Gooders Podcast today. Thank you so much for being here this morning.

Mechale Mency: Oh, I’m so happy to be here.

Christin Thieme: I know that there is a song that you remember from camp. What is that song?

Mechale Mency: Oh my goodness, I sang it on Saturday. I sang it today! Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory. Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory. Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory, children of the Lord. 

Christin Thieme: Even all these years later, you remember it. 

Mechale Mency: Oh, you know, I’m going to tell you something. I met the Lord there and, um, I wasn’t from a church family. And so that’s the reason I know that song is…when I would get into pickles as a kid. And I wanted to, because I learned to worship at [Camp] Gilmore, I would sing that song cause it was the only song I knew. 

You know, what’s so amazing, we never know how we’re blessing people. They literally equipped me. I learned to pray there. They equipped me to worship, you know, I learned what it meant to worship as opposed to just sing songs. It was the first time I had seen people worship. I’ve been to church, but true worship? It was beautiful. 

Christin Thieme: I love that. Okay. So take me back to the beginning. How did you end up at Camp Gilmore?

Mechale Mency: So, I was raised by my aunt. I am from a city called Duarte, near Monrovia, which are located in Los Angeles County. They’re not far from Los Angeles, within 30-40 minutes of Los Angeles. And I was a foster kid and I was taken in by my auntie. She already had three daughters. And so me and my sister went to live with her and that made five of us and she was a working mom and she had an opportunity. The Salvation Army came out to the school. We have, I’m sure I was at a Title I school. I’m an educator now; I’m a principal, actually. And a Title I school is usually students who receive free and reduced lunch. I never took money to school so I’m pretty sure we were getting free lunch. And so The Salvation Army was going to those schools and inviting families to go. And, my sister and I, and my cousins, we ended up going. 

Christin Thieme: Did you have any experiences with The Salvation Army up to that point?

Mechale Mency: No, I had not. No, no. I had never even heard of The Salvation Army. 

Christin Thieme: That’s a lot of trust! It just sounded fun to you or what made you want to go?

Mechale Mency: It sounded fun to us and we begged to go. You know, when it’s just a mom at home, you can wear her down. We wore her down. She never let us go anywhere. We didn’t really go places. She was just very protective. I was very blessed that I was safe, physically safe, the entire time I was going up. So it was shocking that she let us go. But we went.

Christin Thieme: So you got to camp. Tell us what you remember about that experience. 

Mechale Mency: The first time, it was like literally like the first time camping. I was 10 years old. We arrived at the camp and it was beautiful. Like we are amazed. Years later, my cousin who also went with me, Wanda, her daughter went to The Salvation Army camp, one nearby. And she was like, “Oh girl, it’s a resort. Like you got to see The Salvation Army camp.” We went multiple times. And so, just pulling up and seeing a camp in the mountains and the drive through the mountains. Oh, it was amazing. We were going bananas on the bus cause it’s a bunch of kids from my community.

Christin Thieme: How fun. So what did you do that week? What was that week like?

Mechale Mency: Oh my goodness. I’m going to be honest with you. It was so much fun. I can’t remember what we did. Camp Gilmore had a schedule at the start of the day and they had an itinerary. So it was kind of the first time I had like vacation with an itinerary, too. So it was like, you know, this is what you did at this time and this is what you did. So everything was really planned out. 

My most memorable experience—my cousin brought this up—is when they would drop a plate or a spoon, everybody would clap. But I loved eating in that dining hall. My other memory, which I have to give credit to my cousin, Wanda, for. She remembered what they used to say to wake us up. They would blow the horn, the trumpet. And they would say: “Wake up, you lazy daisies. It’s time for flag raising!” It was just fun from the start to the end with that itinerary. It was really fun. I learned to swim. I met the Lord. It was pretty amazing. 

Christin Thieme: How did you feel when you were at camp?

Mechale Mency: That’s an important question. As a school leader, I always talk about how things make you feel, because it’s wonderful to have a great event, but how do people feel while they’re there? You know, I had a tough growing up. My mother struggled with mental illness my entire life. And so, I had to live with my aunt, but before I had the chance to live with my aunt, I was with my grandmother who very safe. But prior to that, I was in foster care. And, because of that, I’ve always had a focus on,  “Am I safe?” Emotionally and physically, and I felt safe at Camp Gilmore. And I think that’s what I loved about it. I didn’t know any of those people when we got there. And so to feel safe as a child, like safe enough that I let them put me in a pool and help me. My mother was nowhere around, and they put me in a pool to try to teach me to swim. So, I mean, that’s pretty amazing. 

So I think the most profound memory I have about Camp Gilmore is feeling safe. Safe is important to me, just because of my identity. 

Christin Thieme: Absolutely. And you mentioned that camp was one time you’ve been around different people than you were used to growing up.

Mechale Mency: You know, the reason I’m even on this call is because I, came across it online and it has the director’s name. And so I wrote him because I had never thanked Camp Gilmore, and I’m always talking about it. Because, like I said, I met Jesus there. I had, you know, grown up in the church, but that intimacy—like I grew up in religion. I met, I learned about relationships from The Salvation Army, about that intimate relationship you could have with Jesus Christ. So, that absolutely was huge. 

But a bigger piece for me is I had not been around white Americans. I am African-American. I grew up in a Black, exclusively Black and Mexican community. And the only white Americans were teachers who came in to my school, but we had a high transiency rate. So we did not see the same teachers a lot. So I never formed a bond with a white American.

And so what was powerful for me…my family’s from the south, my father in particular, and he had some difficult experiences in the South. As a young child, I was taught to be afraid of white Americans, if I’m honest. You know, the South was difficult for African-Americans with lynchings and mobs;  it was crazy. And so I was informed about how to interact or who white people were from somebody who had been harmed by them. So of course, I was, suspicious, to be honest. And after that week there, something just happened to me. Something clicked in me and really, because my best friend was Marsha Brady from “The Brady Bunch.” That was my girl. Something clicked in me because white people didn’t even really feel real because they didn’t live in my community. 

So at Camp Gilmore, there was diversity there, but the majority of the children there were white, but there was diversity there. It was really my first opportunity to be included with white American children in something so exciting and also just meeting white American adults who were kind to me. And it really led and informed how I engaged white Americans. Because, you know, if your early message is that there is hostility between blacks and whites and you go out into the world feeling that you can either just continue to believe that, or you give people a chance. I don’t know why I gave people a chance. I don’t know. I don’t know why that experience made me say, well, you know, maybe—maybe that was just my daddy’s experience. Or maybe, you know, something just happened to me.

I ended up going to a different high school than my siblings. I went to a majority white high school, not because I just want to be around white people and I didn’t want to be with my own community. That school was better—better in the sense that they had more resources, not better in the sense that it was a better school, that school just had more resources. So I went to a school called Monrovia High School. They got me to college. And so if I hadn’t gone to Camp Gilmore, though, I would have been uncomfortable around white Americans. And I wasn’t. 

I went to high school. I went to college. I went to San Diego State University, with 30,000 students when I was there less and than 1% were African-American. I’ve been able to move in the world because of that experience. I went three times. And so, three times I had the experience of going and being treated well and learning about the Lord. So it was, it was pretty powerful.  

Christin Thieme: It sounds like really formative. How, how did that experience influence your faith today? Do you think?

Mechale Mency: You know, I am so grateful to The Salvation Army, because like I said, we did go to church occasionally. But I think the biggest thing was I was familiar with church, but I wasn’t familiar with Jesus. And I think the way it informed my faith and how I live and interact with God is I’m a disciple of Jesus Christ. I have nothing against Christians. I just don’t necessarily call myself a Christian because it connects to the church. And unfortunately, sometimes people don’t have that great connection, but one is with the church. And one of the things that I try to do, because it happened for me at Camp Gilmore is to be an experience. Jesus was an experience. Camp Gilmore was an experience and they made me feel protected and safe, just like the Lord does.

And so one of the things that, the biggest thing it did is it took me away from religion because the camp leader who was talking to me and ministering to me about Jesus, literally only talked about Jesus. And I remember saying to her, do I have to go to church every week? And she was like, no, this is about you and Jesus. This isn’t about church. And that’s crazy that I remember that because that has been how I’ve functioned as a Christian is it’s about me and Jesus and how people experience him through me and how I experienced Jesus through those camp leaders. 

Christin Thieme: That’s so beautiful. So you met Jesus at camp, you learned to swim at camp, you were around different kinds of people. How do you think your whole camp experience over these three years—did it influence what you would go on to do? How do you bring any elements of camp into your work in education and as a principal, do you think?

Mechale Mency: Absolutely. I try to be an experience.

I’m not playing, Jesus was an experience. The disciples were so blessed. I don’t know if you’ve met or had an experience as opposed to, like, when you meet people and you can’t stop thinking about them. So I think in those three years, and it was only a week, but in those three years, I looked forward to it. I aged out or I would’ve gone back!

The last year I went, this is how much I love camp—the last year I went, they were all too old. I went by myself. I thought I was going to be homesick because I was always with my cousins. We would never, my sister, we were never not together, but I had a wonderful time. I missed them, but I had a wonderful time. So I think what it brings to my profession, as a principal, I try to be an experience. I felt seen at Camp Gilmore. And I try to make sure kids feel seen. So it had an amazing, powerful impact. And I was just so glad to see it’s still there.

Christin Thieme: So on that note, why would you hope that every kid could go to camp in the summertime?

Mechale Mency: As an educator, and just as a human, children experience a lot of harm just like adults do. And I think it’s, it’s important that children have social and emotional experiences that make them feel valued and teach them to value others. And that’s what I’ve learned from Jesus, what Jesus taught me. I was valuable and other people were valuable as well. So I think we would just get along better as humans, man, just saying none of this racial stuff would be happening, all this arguing and fighting. They just need to go to Camp Gilmore and experience some inclusion. 

And also, what I didn’t know is that my aunt was having this opportunity for free. I thought my aunt was paying for it. So I felt guilty. My last year, she asked me if I wanted to go, because like I shared, I was raised by my aunt. And I was like, no, because it was only going to be me. And it was going to be money she had to use. And I was like, no, I don’t want to. She was like, why you love it? And I was like, uh, and then she told me, and that’s when she told me I don’t pay for that camp. So I loved to even more after that. She has five kids—well, only four of us went. My cousin Tammy was too cool.

Christin Thieme: Yes, there’s a lot of really generous donors who make camp possible every summer for kids. So it’s so cool to hear your story now, so many years later, that camp had such an impact on you as a kid. So thank you for sharing.

Mechale Mency: Thank you so much. I appreciate this opportunity. It was a powerful experience and I’m glad they’re still around. And I have [the camp director’s] information. I want to be able to send kids to camp, too.

Additional resources:

Listen and subscribe to the Do Gooders Podcast now.

Salvation Army brings hope to survivors of Colorado apartment fire

Salvation Army brings hope to survivors of Colorado apartment fire

On April 11, a fire at the Sunridge Apartments in Avon, Colorado, left multiple

Finding the words through recovery: One journey that inspires many

Finding the words through recovery: One journey that inspires many

Recent San Jose ARC graduate, David Duenas, shares his story on battling

You May Also Like