“When I say the word ‘Scientist’ what’s the image that comes to your head?” I asked, and slowly hands came up. “Einstein!” “Lab coats” “Glasses” “Crazy Hair” some of the answers provided by 4-H campers during my presentation. “Well you’re all right, those are some stereotypical characteristics of a scientist, but guess what? You are all scientists too!” There were puzzled looks in the audience, followed by campers looking at each other. They have probably never thought of themselves in that way. This past week has been an incredible experience that I will cherish as I move forward in my environmental ed career. As I ready myself for the diverse 4-H summer camp sponsored by Oregon State University and other partners, I felt anxious and unsure about what lay ahead. I had previously been to these very camps on two other occasions; I was leading birding workshops for the campers, but this time I would be joining Mario Magana, coordinator of the 4-H summer camps and Associate Professor at OSU, as camp staff.
When I had shown up at the beginning of the camp, I felt a little out of place because many of the people I was working with, camp staff and counselors, seem to know each other and were a very strong knit group. During formal introductions, many of the counselors, all high school students, revisited the theme of family when they introduce themselves and said why they were at camp. And it is a big family. These counselors started off as campers when they were younger. For some, this was their 5th year at these camps. So I could understand how close these kids truly were with each other. As the week progressed and I started to meet some of these extraordinary youth and the people that support them, we all loosened up and I realize the true importance of this place. This place is sacred, a place for youth of color to learn ownership of their futures and learning; a place to embrace new cultures and peoples, new experiences and knowledge, and most importantly, a place with role models who love them and support them.
It almost brings me to tears see it all in-action. Those interactions between staff and counselors and counselors and campers are life altering. It brings me back to the times I was at camp and built those friendships and had those experiences that are still fond to me. The importance of these kinds of places where youth can have the space to grow and learn cannot be overlooked. I am so grateful that I was given the privilege to spend some time with my own.
The week included many physical activities and sports that pitted counselors and camper teams against each other. The winners would receive medals for their competitive spirit, and the campers loved competing against each other. Mario also invited many guest speakers, including the Corvallis District Attorney, a Ghanaian drummer/singer, a world adventurer, a successful businesswoman and even a cowboy. They shared their struggles, hardships and ultimately their success. It was an insight for the campers, a peek at the path to see what obstacles they will confront. Then there were the workshops, like ours, where we explained to campers some of the different careers in natural resources and employed them as junior scientist to conduct research on plots of land that we were looking to manage. Together, these experiences made the camp magical for both counselors and campers and showed them that the can also be what they set out to be in this lifetime.
I went in to this camp with different expectations. Sometimes we forget the importance of what we do. Our pride can sometimes leak out of our work, and we begin to feel as if it really doesn’t make a difference. I would be lying however, if I said that the spirit of these young people didn’t motivate me to become a better leader, role model and educator. I was moved by all the volunteers who put in the many hours and sleepless nights stitching this program together. I left this camp feeling refreshed, refocused and ready to take on the next challenges for myself, and I’m sure every staff, counselor and camper felt the same way when they left.
My hope is for the next EFTA intern stationed here in Newport, Oregon, and the ones after, to experience the beauty of dreams coming true. I hope that they follow up with the 4-H camp and become the role models that these students need and deserve and I hope they get to share in the spirit and family that keeps bringing us back to this place.