Pippi Longstocking! If she had to pick one favorite book from her childhood, L. Marelle Camel would choose Pippi Longstocking. The adventures… The lack of supervision…
“I just was so taken by this little girl who was raising herself.” Marelle’s smile and tone revealing a bit of envy for the child who was free to get into mischief unchecked. “But also, I was kind of afraid for her because she didn’t have guidance.”
Since those early years, books have moved Marelle. And she wants them to impact today’s elementary aged kids too by presenting reading not as a chore, but rather as a world of exploration, learning and wonder. Marelle cares about this so much that in early 2019, she founded a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization called Camel Kids Foundation.
“It’s important for kids to really see themselves reflected in books,” she said. “We provide students with free books to introduce them to authors and illustrators and lead characters of color.”
Marelle says it is imperative for children to see books that have someone who looks like them on the cover. “Especially in children’s books, picture books… that’s important for the little kids to see.
“I want to triumph all of our people of color who are authors because they don’t get a lot of credit. I want to introduce their books to kids.” That also includes illustrators of color. “I think that the children who are not of color can also benefit from reading a story by someone who is of color. Nine times out of 10, they have friends, schoolmates or playmates or people in dance class that are of color. And it’s important for them to know how to relate.”
Marelle knows stories can be formative, and they have staying power. Decades later, the thought of Pippi Longstocking still brings a smile to Marelle’s eyes. (The story was first published in 1945 by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, and it has been translated into 75 languages.)
Now a 32 year-old actor living in Los Angeles, Marelle embraces all aspects of storytelling, and she has made a commitment to reaching young minds through books.
The mission of Camel Kids Foundation — which Marelle says is currently operating in Los Angeles and New York, and next in Atlanta — has two parts. One part: Visit schools to read and gift carefully selected books to elementary age children. The other part: The Snack Box Project: To provide classroom supplies for teachers and snacks for their rooms.
An estimated 94% of all teachers buy classroom supplies out of their own pocket, and up to 13 million children nationwide go to school hungry regularly.
The struggle felt by teachers to provide for their students is a reality Marelle knows well. Her mother, Pearl, has been an educator for nearly 25 years. While teaching pre-K and kindergarten, Pearl raised three daughters alone: Marelle, Marelle’s twin sister Lynne Michelle (younger than Marelle by just three minutes) and their older sister Katherine (who is also an educator and teaches K2 at a daycare).
Homework and the Human Spirit
Growing up in Atlanta, Marelle learned the importance of education from her mother.
“She is an educator to the T. So if we didn’t have homework, we had homework. She would give us homework. And even if we did have homework, she would give us homework. Our summers were spent at the library.
“If one of my sisters or I even asked a question, like, ‘I wonder if there’s butterflies that have the same pattern…’ that would be a book report that we would have to do. If you asked a question, you would learn it. You know? And it would be all of us that would have to do that book report. So being the daughter of an educator is hard, but it’s good at the same time because you learn so much.”
Marelle and her sisters learned academic lessons from Pearl. But one of the biggest life lessons Marelle learned was this:
“My mother says, ‘Turn around, child. Just turn around.’
“A lot of people wait until they’ve got Oprah money or Obama money in order to be philanthropists. (My mother) says, ‘Turn around. There’s somebody behind you that could use your help where you are now. You are capable. You don’t have to wait until you have… money to be, like, now I’m going to donate. Or now I’m going to build a school in Africa. Or I’m going to build a school in Europe. You know, there’s something that you could be doing, someone who could benefit from you, if you would just turn around.’”
Marelle thinks about how an organization like the one she has founded today could have helped back then. “We struggled as a family,” she says. “And so now that I’m capable…. (You) can hear the echo. I’ve definitely got to turn around, you know? And help somebody else.”
Camel Kids Foundation primarily serves Title 1 schools, although not exclusively. The basic principal of Title 1 is that schools with large concentrations of low-income students will receive supplemental funds to assist in meeting student’s educational goals.
Learning to Live
After graduating from high school in Atlanta, Marelle left home for the first time in the name of study: to Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama. There, she learned that being on her own wasn’t as carefree as it seemed for fictional Pippi Longstocking.
“I had a hard time my freshman year. Wow! I never realized my attachment to my mother until it was time to leave.” Four years later, she majored in Communications and went back to Atlanta to figure out what to do next. From age 21-24, Marelle would search.
“I found that period, that three year period, very hard for me. It was about discovering my identity and who I was as a person, who I was going to be, the things that I wanted to do, the things that I could do and how could I make my goals reality.”
It’s during those times of waiting or searching that we all find our spaces of grace and refuge.
“I did dance — ballet, contemporary and hip hop. I found a love for pilates and yoga during that time…. That was my release. That did … buy me some time and really helped me deeper discover who I was as a person. I’ve always been very creative, and dance is definitely a way to express myself.”
Through her yoga practice, Marelle says she found calm. “It was the stillness about it that really got me to hone in and focus, which I think is necessary as a young adult to have.
“I think that’s what really led me to just pick up and leave after I’d found my focus.”
Unlike that first goodbye when she left Atlanta for Oakwood University, Marelle was ready when she decided to move to Los Angeles to work in production and then pursue acting.
“Leaving the nest again wasn’t something that I feared. It was something that I welcomed. I was ready for change.”
Even as Marelle focuses on her acting career, her mission with Camel Kids Foundation is deeply rooted in family and tradition and turning around for the next person.
I wondered if Camel Kids Foundation had made its way to Pearl’s classroom.
“I go to her class whenever I’m in Atlanta and disrupt,” she laughs. “I teach (teach, she says, with air quotes) to the best of my ability!” But those visits have been personal visits.
If Marelle brings Camel Kids Foundation to her mother’s classroom — to sit down with students and read to them about characters just like them — it will be a sort of coming full circle, a circle which has her mother, Pearl, at its center.
Marelle has watched her mother teach and is in awe of the way she’s able to make connections with students and sees the light bulb moments when they’ve learned something. And there is reverence there, but not only that. “I adore her. She’s my heart.”
And it is really heart that is motivating Marelle’s movement — to see hearts, to open hearts and to nurture hearts. Perhaps so that every child will one day find it in their own heart … to also… turn around.
To learn more, to donate or to get involved with Camel Kids Foundation, visit www.camelkidsfoundation.org and follow them on social media at @camelkidsfndn. Email, volunteer, donate, share. Portrait 1 photo credit: Kevin Richardson/Dance As Art. Portrait 2 photo credit: Kirk McKoy. My thanks for permission to use your beautiful work.