For Cachagua’s Jensen Camp, it is not uncommon for teenagers to spend their afterschool time riding their dirt bikes or quads after they get home from school. photo by AVERY CRIPEBY ELLAH FOSTER
Picture driving through a windy, switch-backed road enveloped in rolling, wooded hills, finally reaching your destination just as it’s beginning to get dark. In a clearing is a trailer park where mobile homes scrunch together, each yard lined with old red picket fencing and a dirt road.
As families arrive back home from their day, children and parents walk the street, making casual conversations or poking their heads over fences to say hello. A few boys banter back and forth, one talking about selling his quad, the other fixing his dirt bike out in his yard.
For those living in the land of Cachagua, this is a typical Tuesday evening, a school night. Nearly 25 miles from Carmel-by-the-Sea, Cachagua makes for strong bonds among neighbors and friends.
Eighth grader Michael Martinez has lived in Cachagua all 13 years of his life and feels as though the atmosphere within the Jensen and Prince’s trailer parks varies greatly from that of town.
“If we lived out in town, I don’t think we’d play out in the street and ride our bikes up and down the road,” Martinez notes. “It’d be different.”
Other than the camps, the only additional buildings are a small general store, a park structure, more spacious housing dispersed across the land and the Cachagua Children’s Center.
But the Children’s Center is much more than meets the eye. With the help of volunteers, the Center provides a preschool program in the morning as well as an afterschool program for all grades offered nightly until 6 p.m.
Vicki Briesacker, the current site director of the Center, has a long history in child development and care.
“This is my tenth year at the center. The past nine years before I came here, I worked at Apple Pie Preschool in Big Sur,” Briesacker says. “Two years before that, I started at Carmel Child Development Center as a preschool teacher. I’ve worked at all the child development programs in the school district.”
The Cachagua Children’s Center makes an effort to provide opportunities to students that are typically unable to receive due to their location, economic status or language barrier. They provide Wi-Fi, after-school snacks, access to their playgrounds, and a place for children to spend their time in a positive environment.
“A lot has to do with the distance and access to tutoring,” Briesacker notes regarding the difficulties students face. “Part of it has to do with English as a second language. Sometimes the students need extra help from English speakers because their parents can’t help them at all.”
The lack of internet service has proven to be an issue in years prior, with families just beginning to get Wi-Fi in their homes recently, Briesacker reveals.
When students finally arrive at the center after a grueling hour-and-a-half ride on the bumpy school bus, they are warmly greeted at the door by Briesacker. Groups form on the playground; a few younger girls cluster on the top of the slide and whisper to one another. A gang of boisterous middle school boys eagerly debate how the community park will spend its money—a baseball field or a BMX track? After a while, Vicki Briesacker calls in the reluctant children for their homework hour. When the program lets out, students stroll home through the dusty streets with the last rays of afternoon sun fading into twilight.
As students grow older, the challenges of living so far from town are amplified. Many find it hard to participate in extracurricular activities and sports since they spend roughly three hours a day on the bus.
“I run track, but I think a lot of students from Cachagua don’t play sports partly because of the distance,” junior Luke Danzer explains. “But most of it is their motivation. It’s difficult to commute back and forth. I have to take the late bus every day.”
The distance also makes it difficult for students to access extra help from school. Potentially this can lead to falling behind in class, which is what the Center tries to diminish in their afterschool program.
From the bus rides, afterschool time and close proximity with neighbors, students from Cachagua find they have much more in common with those within their community than from anywhere else.
“There’s just a social connection here,” Danzer says. “It’s also very environmental—we’re out here immersed in nature.”
Hand-in-hand with the difficulties of living in Cachagua is the unparalleled natural beauty of the open land. The Cachagua life is graced with solitude and wilderness, which gives students unique connections between one another and nature.
“This is a very tight-knit community,” Briesacker adds. “They’re strongly bonded through families and their children. All the students get along extremely well and love being around each other.”
Sixteen-year-old resident Luis Martinez, who currently attends Carmel Valley High School, has spent his entire life in Cachagua and explains that this sense of community is all he knows.
“We always help each other out,” Martinez says. “When there are fires, we band together. Whenever anyone needs anything really.”
To keep students active and busy throughout the summer, the Cachagua Children’s Center held a two-week enrichment program in 2017 for kindergartners through middle schoolers. The Center relied on the program to be run primarily by volunteers, according to director Tess Arthur, who ran the program throughout the summer and has also worked as head of the advisory group for the Friends of Cachagua Children’s board for almost two years.
“We incorporated three elements: We had a station of academics, a station of enrichment and one of recreation,” Arthur explains. She also notes that they received a daily attendance of roughly 30 students.
Through the program, Arthur became closer with the children as well as with their families. They took numerous field trips to locations such as Carmel Beach and Palo Corona State Park, and the program was able to provide activities that most of the students wouldn’t have been able to experience otherwise.
“I think the program brought the kids together even more,” Arthur adds. “They saw each other every day and interacted with different age groups.”
While many aspects of life in Cachagua can be challenging, it’s clear that the younger generation of the community are a resilient and inspiring group.