TOLLGATE - At Meadowood Springs Speech and Hearing Camp near the Tollgate pass, speech therapists look to a native French speaker to help unlock the words from campers' mouths.
Julien Zimmerman, an 18-year-old engineering student from France, is only too happy to comply. In fact, he paid is airfare to the United States to volunteer as a counselor at the camp that provides intensive speech therapy to children between 6-16 years old.
"If I just came here to work in a company, I don't think I'd enjoy it as much," he said. The camp is "work, but not really - it's more pleasure."
As is tradition at the 10-day camp, all 30 staff members and 53 campers only know Zimmerman by his official name, "Looping," as in the motion stunt airplanes make in the air. Or, how his head felt when he first landed at Meadowood after 20 hours of inter-continental travel. Sleeping soundly after he arrived, Zimmerman promptly woke at 6 a.m., an almost mythical hour of the day for most college students, even though it was nine hours later in his hometown of Roppentzwiller, located on the French border with Germany and Switzerland.
Now, the crack of dawn isn't so foreign to him. On any given morning, Zimmerman may take a few of the campers for a morning swim at the camp's swimming pool. If not, it's lights out until nearly 7 a.m. when it's time to wake for breakfast. Most of his day is spent assisting in speech therapy lessons. Here, campers with names like "Dragon Slayer," "Griffin" and "Eagle" work on aspects of speech, whether it's syntax practice with words with multiple meanings or practicing difficult sounding words, such as "r" words or those beginning with "th."
Many campers are returning students, so there is a great build up before camp officially begins.
"I was excited because I knew some of my old friends will be here," said "Bubbles," who is in the same group as "Waterboy" and "Cheetah," so named because he is "the fastest cat in the universe."
At the beginning of the camp, Zimmerman said his language skills needed improvement, mostly because he had a "really bad accent."
"They think it's really funny," he said. "They make fun of my accent, but it's really not mean."
Ten days of Camp Meadowood equals about six months of speech therapy, so the campers quickly got used to his speech. But Zimmerman said he's learned more from the campers than they've learned from him.
"When Zimmerman first came, I was like 'great, now I am going to get somebody who doesn't speak English,'" said Nike, a student clinician at the camp who runs therapy sessions. "But he is great. He works really well with the kids."
Nike and Zimmerman don't work the easiest group of students. Nike, who also goes by Shauna McIver, who studies communication disorders at Biola University, said their group is more severe than those in Meadowood's first camp. Two campers have cochlear implants, an implant attached to the inner ear that can restore partial hearing, and four others communicate primarily using sign language.
This being summer camp, Nike and Zimmerman employ speech activities in the form of games. But Zimmerman's personality also helps give the sessions a light touch.
"He'll by silly, he'll dress up like an NSync boy, but he keeps (the campers) in line and he has fun with them," Nike said.
Known as "Frenchie" to some of the other counselors, Zimmerman has made a name for himself as a prankster. Recently doused with a bucket of water while in a bathroom stall, Zimmerman exacted what he called "vengeance" in the form of a few handfuls of shaving cream to the face of the unsuspecting counselor. That attack got him a few ice cubes placed in his sleeping bag.
Zimmerman is a skinny kid who reaches 5 feet, 9 inches tall and wears shorts, T-shirts and blue tennis shoes with matching socks. Atop his head rests a spider's web bleached into his hair. It was the result of a dare with another counselor, who is sporting two racing stripes in his hair.
"My mom is going to laugh about it," he said of the spider's web. "But my father is going to say 'cut your hair.'"
But it's not all fun and games at Meadowood.
There's also arts and crafts, where campers create mobiles out of wire hangers and paper mache, and sports games. The campers also sing songs and enjoy a hands-on nature class. There's also "marble toes," where campers use their feet and try to grab as many marbles as they can from a bucket of water.
As camper "Bulldog" put it as he ran in to wash his hands after a hard morning of play, "They have fun stuff here."