When Leo Villanueva Jr., aged 7, showed up at summer camp this June, he wore black goggles and pink swim trunks with dinosaurs on them. He was geared up to get wet. Leo doesn’t love summer, though. He has lots of friends at school, and during break, he misses them. But Leo does like camp. He has more friends there, and he gets to perfect his swimming skills.

May 26 was a sweet day for many Oakland children: the first day of summer break for those in Oakland Unified School District. This year, students have 73 days to live up their summers before school starts again, and the clock is ticking.

This photo essay highlights what some Oakland kids are doing to fully enjoy their summer break and the skills they are learning along the way.

Leo Villanueva Jr. glides through the water as he launches off the side of the pool on June 15 at East Oakland Sports Center on Edes Avenue. For Leo, swimming transports him to another place. Credit: Florence Middleton

“When I’m in the water, I like it ‘cause it’s really cool. And I feel like I’m in water,” said Leo.

Leo Villanueva Jr., aged 7

Leo is participating in the City of Oakland’s Town Camp + Swim program.

Angelica Lopez, recreation center director, oversees Town Camp + Swim at the City of Oakland’s Tassafaronga Recreation Center. Her campers use the pool at East Oakland Sports Center for their morning swim lessons and then travel back to Tassafaronga Recreation Center on 85th Avenue for the rest of their day filled with sports and art activities.

While many campers simply find the program fun, Angelica said they are also gaining a life-saving skill that many would not otherwise learn.

“A lot of the parents of the actual participants don’t know how to swim,” Angelica said, as she reflected on a story about a participant’s parent who panicked when her child jumped into a pool. “So there’s an extra important value that it provides.”

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Zacary Mason, aged 13 and another camper in Town Camp + Swim, is a camp veteran.

“I’ve been coming here since I was like five years old, so I mean, you got to stay loyal, man,” said Zacary.

Zacary Mason, aged 13
Aiden Saetern, 13, left, and Zacary Mason play by the side of the pool at the end of the day’s swim session on June 15. During lessons, Zacary has been working on his breaststroke, butterfly stroke, and his freestyle breathing technique. Credit: Florence Middleton

While summer means swim trunks for some, other kids in Oakland are bundling up. Children sprinted into Oakland Ice Center on June 21, donning Oaklandish hoodies, winter jackets, and colorful gloves and mittens for the Learn to Skate camp

Jasmine Sanchez, 7, left, joined Learn to Skate this summer because her friends, Diana Rojas, right, and Galilea Perez, bottom, were participating. At Oakland Ice Center on June 21, Jasmine covered her name tag in stickers, fell on the ice, and doodled in her notebook before hitting the ice again with her friends. Credit: Florence Middleton

“I like this camp because it’s fun and I get to go ice skating and I have fun with my friends and I learn how to ice skate,” said Jasmine.

Jasmine Sanchez, aged 7

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But more than anything, Jasmine is enjoying spending extra time with her family in Oakland this summer. 

“It’s my nina, my tio, my uncle, my cousin, my mother, my mom, my dad, and my grandma, and my grandpa. We went to the movies, we went to go eat.”

Jasmine Sanchez, aged 7

For Aubrielle Delane, 15, summer could not have come soon enough.

“I had been very anxious and very like stressed about my finals. So when it was all over, I was very just relieved,” said Aubrielle.

Aubrielle Delane, aged 15
Aubrielle Delane, left, dances with Kendall Bell, 14, on June 7 at Oakland’s Linden Park. Aubrielle said she is new to the group but now feels like she can be herself among the girls. She joined Savage Royalty Dance Company in March 2023. Credit: Florence Middleton

Savage Royalty Dance Company is a year-round competitive dance group in Oakland focused on majorette dance. The group was founded by Candis Smith and her daughter, Ca Zaria Smith, in 2021.

“I like it because it allows me to express myself because I am very sassy myself,” said Ca Zaria.

Ca Zaria Smith, aged 17

American majorette dance was born in the late 1960s, originating in historically Black colleges and universities in the South. Originally, baton twirlers accompanied marching bands and added dance to their routines. Now, majorette is a blend of high-step marching, hip-hop, jazz, and West African dance, and oftentimes, it is accompanied by gymnastics and stunts. It is no longer always joined by a marching band and batons. 

“It’s more than just dance, more than making a name for ourselves,” said Candis Smith, director of Savage Royalty Dance Company. “It’s about the memories we’re making and exposing them to things they normally wouldn’t get to see.”

This summer, Savage Royalty dancers competed in Los Angeles, Calif., on June 24. They walked away with 2nd place in the Junior Stands (dance-off) and Creative categories and a Fierce Strut award. In August, they will compete in nationals in Miami, Fla. 

Before joining the team, some of the dancers have never been on a plane. Some have never left Oakland.

Ca Zaria Smith, 17, stands tall in the center of a formation as the group receives feedback from a choreographer during a competition rehearsal. The group meets year-round, but during the summer and especially before competitions, they increase their practices to up to six days a week. Credit: Florence Middleton

Beyond new experiences, Ca Zaria said this group is a special place for many dancers.

“They could be going through things outside of dance, and it’s a way to help them ‘cause when they come here, all their problems go away,” said Ca Zaria.

Ca Zaria Smith, aged 17

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Summer camp on Lake Merritt is a family affair for Damien Shoup, aged 10. For the week of June 12, Damien participated in the City of Oakland’s Youth Sailing Camp at the Lake Merritt Boating Center.

A boy in a life jacket knees by a bench and is surrounded by children hanging out, holding life jackets.
Damien Shoup, aged 10, waits for lunch after a sailing session on the water at Lake Merritt Boating Center on June 16, 2023. Credit: Florence Middleton
Damien Shoup practices sailing a course on Lake Merritt. On the final day of camp, kids sail alone in their own boat to practice the new skills they learned in the week-long camp. Credit: Florence Middleton

Damien’s favorite part about learning to sail is that his grandfather also knew how to sail.

“‘I’ve been on my grandpa’s boat before. Sadly, he died of cancer, and he sold it before he died. So I didn’t know much about sailing,” said Damien.

Damien Shoup, aged 10

Most of the youth who join the camp have no sailing experience, says Kobe Hutchinson, 23, summer camp recreational lead at Lake Merritt Boating Center and recreational specialist for the fall and spring science programs.

Kobe Hutchinson, right, administers an on-the-water test on Lake Merritt as Miles Edelstein, 11, demonstrates his sailing skills on the final day of the camp. Credit: Florence Middleton

“This is a place where you wouldn’t expect to find a sailing camp because it’s a very small lake in the middle of a downtown city,” said Kobe, who grew up attending the camp before working at the boating center.

Kobe also highlighted the camp’s affordability and diversity of participants.

“Sailing is typically a higher income sort of hobby, mainly because of the expensive boats and because the culture is very established,” Kobe said. “So this is a great way to bring kids who are not in the sailing culture and not part of sailing families into the fold.”

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Generations of Oaklanders have attended the sailing program over the years. The program has existed since approximately the 1950s, with other similar programs existing decades before that, according to Zac Minton, marine maintenance coordinator at Lake Merritt Boating Center.

And for Damien, the opportunity to continue his family’s tradition was a big deal.  

“My then mom and my uncle went to the same sailing camp and my cousins went to the same sailing camp. And now here I am,” said Damien.

Damien Shoup, aged 10

As Oakland students look toward the fall, they have mixed feelings about returning to school.

Aubrielle is thinking about the finals she needs to get through before she graduates. She hopes her senior year of high school goes by fast.

Zacary, entering eighth grade, enjoys school–especially science and reading–but math keeps getting harder each year. He’s going to keep trying, though, he said.

When asked how she feels about going back to school and starting 2nd grade, Jasmine said, “Good.”

But there is still one more month of summer break remaining to enjoy before Oakland Unified School District students return to the classroom on August 7.

“Summer break in Oakland is warm but fun. Also, it’s just beautiful because you got a lot of nature here. We got a lot of trees. It’s like, beautiful, man,” said Zacary.

Zacary Mason, aged 13
Savage Royalty Dance Company dancers wind down towards the end of rehearsal on June 7, 2023. Credit: Florence Middleton

Savage Royalty Dance Company has tryouts on July 11 for new dancers. Contact director, Candis Smith, for more information. (Ages 4-18; $125 per month for competitive dancers; $75 per month for non-competitive dancers)

Learn to Skate has multiple summer sessions with availability through early August. See the Oakland Ice Center website for more information. (Ages 6 and up; 1-week sessions; $250)

Town Camp + Swim has one summer session remaining that began on July 3 at various Oakland recreational centers. Some centers still have availability. (Ages 5-12; 4-week session; $817 for Oakland residents)

Youth Sailing Camps at Lake Merritt Boating Center are full for the rest of the summer, but new sessions may open for August and early September. (Ages 7-10; 1-week sessions; $250 for Oakland residents)

The City of Oakland offers limited scholarships for Town Camp + Swim, Youth Sailing Camps, and other City of Oakland camps. See the Oakland Parks, Recreation & Youth Development Spring & Summer 2023 Activity Guide for more information on Town Camp + Swim (page 15) and Youth Sailing Camps (page 23).

Florence Middleton is a visual journalist based in Oakland, California. She joined The Oaklandside as a photojournalist intern through a partnership with UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she is pursuing a master’s degree. Florence’s work focuses on themes of community, women, and culture, and she has covered stories both locally and globally. Florence is the recipient of the 2023 Pulitzer Center Reporting Fellowship and the 2023 Dorothea Lange Fellowship honorable mention.