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At 'Hunger Games' camp, children want to fight to the 'death'

Published Aug. 3, 2013

LARGO

The first day of camp brought girls with lunchbags and suntans and swimsuit strings hanging down the backs of their shirts. They smiled and jumped up and down, excited to see each other; many were classmates at Country Day School, the host of the summer camp. It was this friendship that made Rylee Miller, 12, feel a little conflicted. "I don't want to kill you," she told Julianna Pettey. Julianna, also 12, looked her in the eye. "I will probably kill you first," she said. She put her hands on Rylee's shoulders. "I might stab you."

The boys had gathered away from the girls, across the room. Eli Hunter cocked an elbow and pointed the fingers on his other hand, explaining that he was a sniper in a tree. He gunned down Liam Cadzow, a tiny blond boy in a bucket hat.

"What are we going to do first?" shouted 14-year-old Sidney Martenfeld. "Are we going to kill each other first?"

"No! No violence this week," the camp's head counselor was busy telling the children. But keeping the kids from talk of murder would prove difficult. That was, after all, the driving plot point of The Hunger Games — and this was Hunger Games camp.

At the end of the week, the 26 kids expected to compete in a real-life Hunger Games tournament. They'd spend the next few days training. Then they'd fight to the "death."

"If I have to die, I want to die by an arrow," Joey Royals mused to no one in particular. "Don't kill me with a sword. I'd rather be shot."

• • •

The Hunger Games trilogy is wildly popular: The first movie grossed nearly $700 million worldwide. More than 36 million copies of the books have been sold in the United States. One of the girls at the camp can recite the first chapter by memory.

While it's difficult to think of a children's phenomenon that doesn't involve violence, The Hunger Games might take the prize. As punishment for a failed rebellion, 12 districts have to send a boy and girl to fight to the death in a televised tournament.

Jared D'Alessio, the summer camp director, remembered plenty of debate when the camp first had the idea to do a Hunger Games-themed week. But he felt they could cut out the violence. The kids would pull flag belts from each other's waists. It's not like they'd really be hurting each other with weapons.

• • •

"What's your specialty? Ours is primarily weapons," said Frances Pool-Crane, the youngest camper at 10 years old.

"Ours is, like, half weapons," said Briana Craig, 12. "Alliance?"

"Sure," Frances said. The girls were decorating posters for the Games. "LOSING MEANS CERTAIN DEATH," Frances wrote.

Next door to the Hunger Games camp, about two dozen kids in another camp played a computer game where they built structures to protect their lives from monsters. Kids can fake-die in nearly any game these days, counselor Simon Bosés said.

"But if you actually sit down and talk to them and they say, 'I'm going to kill you,' they don't understand what they're saying. Death for this age isn't a final thing. It's a reset."

Susan Toler, a clinical psychologist specializing in children's issues and an assistant dean at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, called the camp idea "unthinkable."

When children read books or watch movies, they're observers, removed from the killing. "But when they start thinking and owning and adopting and assuming the roles, it becomes closer to them," Toler said. "The violence becomes less egregious."

• • •

On Wednesday morning, the camp's head counselor, Lindsey Gillette, told the campers there would be a rule change to Friday's Hunger Games tournament. Instead of "killing" each other by taking flags, the campers would instead "collect lives." Whoever had the most flags would win.

Gillette told the campers she changed the rules so that no one would get out early and have to sit on the sidelines. But privately, she said the violence the kids had expressed was off-putting. She wanted the camp to focus on team-building activities.

Like the Minefield. Blindfolded, kids walked through a field of cones and baseball gloves and Hula-Hoops, with only a partner's voice to guide them. D'Alessio and Gillette congratulated them on working together.

• • •

Friday came, and so did the Hunger Games tournament; or, at least the cleaned-up version in which no one could "die."

Alyssa Stewart, 12; Alexis Quesada, 13; and Julianna formed an alliance. After nabbing a few flags, they paused in a safe zone, a green picnic bench under a tree, to get a drink in the shade.

There, the girls added Andrés Kates, 11, to the alliance. But the second he left the safe zone, they grabbed his flag. "Hey!" he yelled, stumbling backward.

The girls ran off, first across the basketball court, then through the grass, between buildings, by the water fountain, past the body lying on the ground . . .

The body lying on the ground. CJ Hatzilias, 11, face-down, in the grass. He was crying. "They stepped on me," he said.

Someone went for help. "CJ, what happened?" Gillette asked.

"They stepped on me," he said.

D'Alessio knelt down. "I'm sure it was an accident."

CJ shook his head. He said some boys had knocked him down and kicked him.

D'Alessio got him up, wrapped an arm around him, walked him over to the camp offices.

The boy wiped his nose. "I got stepped on," he said.

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