I like to say that camp saved my life. It really did. I do not know where I would be in life without who I became as a result of summer camp and Outdoor School. I feel especially blessed that I was a child who had the privilege of participating in the Oregon Trail program in fourth grade and then Outdoor School in sixth grade. At this time in my life as a child, I had a tough home life. Most of my family was sick and eight of my immediate family members died by the time I was 16 years old. We did not have a lot of money as my mother was the main bread winner working for a hotel and my father had a job before I was born, but he lost it and never went back to work. In addition, my father was physically and verbally abusive to my brother, mother and me. He suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from his time serving in the Vietnam War and self-medicated with marijuana. From my relationship with my father, I had been taught that I was never wanted, worthless in life, and was only talked about when I did something good and he wanted to show off to his friends. Therefore, camp was my escape. I waited all year for my one week in the summer to be at camp. It was like Christmas morning when I was fortunate enough to attend both Oregon Trail and Outdoor School.
I distinctly remember my experience at Camp Angelos (or Sandy River Outdoor School) as a fourth-grader. We were there honestly for only 24 hours, but it was a rush of fun and learning about pioneer times. I remember learning to dance in the pioneer style. It was incredibly awkward as a nine-year-old to hold hands with the boy across the line from me and sashay down and back, but on the inside it was exhilarating. It was the first time for me that I had healthy contact with a member of the opposite sex. I remember getting to wear fun regalia of the era and cooking burgers on tin-can stoves. The best part of this experience was that my teacher, Mr. Munstenteiger, and my classmates from school were there. I had a hard time with making friends in the traditional school setting and this got me out of my shell and allowed for fun learning experiences and bonding between my classmates. In addition, there were classes from other schools also in attendance, so I was able to meet new friends.
In sixth grade, I was privileged to go to Outdoor School when it was still an entire week. At this point in my life my relationship with my father was getting worse and worse. In addition, I was at the beginning of my journey of struggling with obesity. I think that is one benefit of being outside at camp, whether it be Outdoor School or summer camp, because it allows you to have free play in the natural world. It was a huge health benefit to my physical body.
I was proficient in school but I was the kid in school that was desperate to be friends with the popular group. Unfortunately, I just did not fit in. The popular group made fun of me for being overweight and I was often left out. Going to Outdoor School I had mixed feelings. I was definitely excited to be away from my home life for a week, but was also nervous to spend a week with my peers. I remember finding out that I was in a cabin group with a few of the popular girls and was disheartened. I was afraid that my experience was going to be ruined by this pairing. I still had an amazing time learning and just experiencing the power of being in nature. I remember having a significant experience within my cabin group. We had a lot of conflict naturally within the group and I was at my breaking point. I had been left out enough at school, in addition to my home life, and now that was trickling into my camp experience. I was overwhelmed. I do not remember who my Student Leader was, but I now think how amazing she must have been. She employed conflict management and our group had time on the final evening of Outdoor School that left us all in tears. She brought us together in a way that I cannot describe. It is my firm belief that these experiences really only can happen in environments like this with amazing Student Leaders and Outdoor School staff. It brought a lot of healing for me and allowed for an easier time at school. That was a turning point for me in my social development and I never struggled like that in the rest of my schooling career.
One of the traditions at Outdoor school is the collection of beads for your name tag. Beads you can collect include accomplishments in program learning areas, cabin cleanliness, etc. However, there is one special purple bead that is only available to one male student and one female student at the end of the week. It was given to the two students who had shown exemplary skill in their education and behavior during the week. The students must be nominated and then honored at the final tree planting ceremony. Completely surprised, I was honored as the female student out of the entire camp, which was probably at least three classes of students from multiple school districts.
I remember just after having my life-changing experience at Outdoor School, my mother informed me that due to insufficient funding, schools were cutting the program altogether. I was extremely upset and decided to write a letter to help save the program. I am sure it was not just me, but after my letter was sent they decided to cut the program back to three days rather than cutting it altogether. I felt powerful and that I could make a difference in the world. I cannot explain what that was like after being taught my whole life that I was never supposed to be born and that I was worthless. I felt like it was because of my words that a program was salvaged.
In high school, I volunteered as a Student Leader for Outdoor School. My experience as a child had been so profound that I wanted to help make that program happen and provide those experiences for other children. At that time in my school district, I again was lucky to serve in an entire week program. My senior year of high school I was asked to be a leader in the Oregon Trail portion of the program and I loved it. It was a different role because in this role you were almost halfway in between Student Leaders and program leadership staff. I fell more and more in love with the program. It was so fulfilling to give back to a community that had provided me a sense of worth and belonging. I thrived in the environment and did not want to leave. I remember working at Oregon Trail as a senior in high school and was paired up with another Student Leader. Usually we were not paired up, so I felt very insecure that for some reason maybe the staff did not trust me on my own. The student I had been paired with was pretty difficult to work with and looking back now I believe that she struggled with some type of mental health disorder. I learned very quickly that though she may not have been proficient in the organization or responsibility aspects of the position in caring for the children, she was excellent in attachment and building relationships with them. She could relate with the fourth-graders in a way that no one else could and the students adored her. I decided to split our duties according to this understanding that I gained. At the end of the week we had our evaluations and I was astounded to find that they paired her with me because they couldn’t trust anyone else to work with her but still wanted to have her involved in the program. Not only did I get a stunning review, but then I was honored during the final flag ceremony. For Student Leaders who have participated every semester for three years, they are honored with an engraved wood cookie at the final ceremony. I had not participated every semester, but they decided to make up an entire pin of purple beads for my name tag wood cookie for my outstanding service. In another way, I was encouraged that I could have a sense of purpose and that I was worth something. I honestly think that as amazing as it was to be a student at Outdoor School, it was most beneficial for me to give back to my community as a high school Student Leader.
In all, my experience in Outdoor School programs facilitated a significant shift in my self-concept. As I developed, I experienced reactions and evaluations from parents and significant other figures in my life, and came to perceive myself as good or bad dependent on these evaluations. Contrary to my evaluations at home, my camp and Outdoor School experience with leadership staff and teachers made me feel capable, liked, trusted, wanted, important, believed in, and responsible. Through opportunities to trust me, believing in my abilities when I did not see them, and opportunities to discover what self-responsibility feels like, I came to learn a new way to see myself. It is my belief that the self grows and changes as a result of continuing interaction with the phenomenal field. My behavior as a child and adolescent is viewed as being consistent with the concept of self. Therefore the Outdoor School experience can, and did for me, facilitate a positive change in self-concept. In this program, I experienced adults who genuinely cared about me, accepted me as I was, wanted to be with me, believed I was capable, trusted me to make responsible decisions, believed in me as a person, and returned responsibility to me in an atmosphere of permissiveness and acceptance. I came to believe myself as intelligent and capable of learning the material in a new way. I started to believe in myself and the potential I had for life and leadership. I had people around me that saw something I did not see yet, that I would be successful in life and that I was worthy of love and belonging right where I was. I did not have to do something to earn connection, but I was accepted as is. I think so often that is what is missing in our education system. [At Outdoor School] we are teaching our children important material, but most importantly we are teaching them how to learn and love learning, and underneath of that we are teaching our children to believe that they are the kind of individuals who are capable of learning and growing and in turn to participate in the world to make a difference in our community.
Thank you for taking the time to read my story and consider the significant impact that Outdoor School not only has on our students at the time of the program but the further impact it has on our community in the long run.