Jane “Ladybug” McEldowney
I’ve talked to people who come from Eastern Oregon or even Central Oregon who think, “My kids don’t need this. We live on a ranch. We live on a farm. We don’t need Outdoor School.” They need it just as much as the city kid, but for different reasons.
— Jane McEldowney

I’m Ladybug. I’m the camp nurse for Outdoor School. We really shouldn’t say “camp” because... although we do camp-type activities, this is an educational opportunity for kids. So those who miss out on it are cutting school when they don’t come.   

I’ve been doing it for more than twenty-five years. It’s a gift given to me that I can share to others and love it. Where else can I work with sixth graders, high school kids who are the volunteer counselors, with a staff of people who are mostly just newly out of college, and then be the camp grandmother? It’s a wonderful opportunity.

I’d like to share a few of the stories with you that really make it special to me. One is about two little inner-city boys who were at our site. They were in their cabin and planning to come out, but they looked out and saw the camp dog, an old Golden Lab, gorgeous old dog, and she was so creaky because she was aged. But the boys saw her and thought she was a lion and they were afraid to come out. To me, that’s an example of why we need Outdoor School. These were children who had never been to the zoo, weren’t comfortable in a park, and thought they were really truly seeing a lion in the woods! And so I think Outdoor School was very helpful to those little boys.

Outdoor School is education. I was school nursing at a camp up in Central Oregon and there was a little boy who had just moved to us from Philadelphia, a very, very inner-city boy. He came out of his cabin one day and he looked up at a ponderosa pine and he said, “You’d sure never see a tree like that in Philly!” He was in awe. And then a pileated woodpecker was sitting on a stump, being very comfortable around people, and the little boy gazed at him and he [said], “You’d sure never see a bird like that in Philly!” Outdoor School changed that little boy. [It] made him feel comfortable in the woods, that there were things that he could see and do and be safe and see things he’d never seen before. Without Outdoor School, he might never have gotten out of the city.

One of the joys of Outdoor School is [that] children who are physically or emotionally/mentally challenged are able to come with their classmates, quite often with their aide who works with them at school. We have accommodating equipment like all-terrain wheelchairs so that the child can get right down to the waterfront like the other children. They can go on the paths through the woods like their classmates and experience what they have never been able to do before.

One of the things I really have to deal with frequently is homesickness. Many of our children by the age of twelve have never spent a night away from their home, away from their family, not even going to stay overnight with Grandma or Grandpa or a friend. Now, I respect that in some cultures this is a high priority that you will not spend time away, but for most kids it’s a good opportunity. Sometimes they’re bitterly homesick and they come to me on Sunday night at bedtime sobbing. Their little hearts are broken. And I assure them. I ask if I can give them a hug. Of course, they usually do want one and I usually have a few stuffed animals they can pick and choose [from]. And then I surprise them by saying, “You don’t have to go to sleep tonight, but you do have to stay in your bunk and be quiet so other people can sleep. But all you have to do is rest. We don’t have a rule for sleeping here.”

So maybe they’re homesick a little bit next day at bedtime again. [But] we often find that by Wednesday, it’s a pivot point and those are the same children who are crying on Friday because they don’t want to go home! They’re on the bus sobbing as they wave to us and we sing them out. It’s a growth opportunity that they can’t get much of another way. Their parents are so surprised at the growth in this child, and the child is so surprised and proud of himself or herself about the growth they’ve made. “I can do this.”

I’ve talked to people who come from Eastern Oregon or even Central Oregon who think, “My kids don’t need this. We live on a ranch. We live on a farm. We don’t need Outdoor School.” They need it just as much as the city kid, but for different reasons. Living on a farm [or] a ranch gives you a lot of outdoor opportunity. But at Outdoor School, we’re talking rocks and soils. Maybe ranch kids have moved a lot of rocks, but haven’t had a chance to learn about duff [organic layer on top of mineral soil] and the layers and so on. They’ve worked with animals, but have they learned about all the adaptations? Do they know why a skunk’s skull is the shape it is? Sure, they’ve helped grow the family crops but learning about photosynthesis [is] a new opportunity for them. And water cycle study! Oh, do they love to see that water turn when the phosphorescence goes into it and understand that it’s indicating a chemical balance, and what that means and why that’s essential for crops to grow, fish to [live], animals to be safe. This is an opportunity that all our kids need. I can’t endorse it strongly enough. Outdoor School for all.