This story is part of a Valley Public Radio original series on how the health of rivers impact the health of communities produced as a project for The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship, a program of USC's Annenberg School of Journalism.
The San Joaquin River begins high up in the Sierra Nevada, flows through the foothills and into the Valley. By the time it reaches many of the small towns in the region the water from the river has been used multiple times, but a new use for the river has been found in one of the unlikeliest of places.
More than 200 kids attended River Camp on the San Joaquin River this summer in the rural west side town of Firebaugh. Three years ago the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust planted the camp in Firebaugh with the hope to change the perception of the river and the health of the community.
River Camp director Juan Echeverria remembers year one.
“I would ask the kids have you been down here,” Echeverria. “They didn’t even know there was a park down here, they didn’t know there was river down here.”
The small agricultural community of Firebaugh is one of the oldest historical towns on the Westside of the San Joaquin Valley. The kids at the camp are primarily the children of farm laborers and farmers. They learn all about the history and ecosystem of the river, are taught safety skills and some kids even learn how to swim.
But Firebaugh doctor Marcia Sablan says the camp is changing the minds of the town’s resident’s one child, then one family at a time. She says the community has had trouble trusting a river that at one time was known more for people drowning, river dumping and fear then fun.
“Every year hear a person drowning in that area,” Sablan say. “It seems like people haven’t had access to water and they really don’t know how to swim.”
Echeveria says Hispanic culture is part of the problem.
“Unfortunately our tradition and our culture hold the river as dangerous,” Echeveria says. “Something’s you can’t do, you’re gonna get in trouble.”
Sablan takes this a step further and points to regional folklore.
“In a lot of Hispanic culture there is fear of ghosts living in the river,” Sablan says.
But the camp is demystifying superstition and unspoken rules in the community.
Eleven-year-old Jenni Siva loves River Camp.
“Its name is the San Joaquin River. There used to be a bridge but it destroyed.”
This is her third time attending River Camp. She says without it she’d be stuck indoors for all summer vacation.
“It feels better to be outside then inside because you just feel like you are in a cage,” Silva says.
She hopes she can attend camp next year.
This program was modeled in Fresno and then taken to Firebaugh. Sablan, the doctor who practices in the town, says Firebaugh is afflicted with diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. She prescribes outdoor activity to her patients regularly.
“I think I ask every single person when the get their physical how much exercise they are getting,” Sablan says. “Probably one out of three adults either have diabetes or are at risk.”
Sablan says River Camp is making the rural town healthier by targeting children and getting them active. She even drops her grandkids off at the camp.
“It’s just been an eye opener for many of the kids of Firebaugh who haven’t ever first of all swam in the river and secondly even been that close to it,” Sablan says.
But that’s all changed for them. Now that they know what the San Joaquin has to offer, like tadpoles, they can come and play safely in the river whenever their parents let them.