A lesson from Mother Nature

Camp fosters enjoyment of outdoors

Photos by Mark Brennan/Siuslaw News

June 2, 2018 — Siuslaw School District gave students the opportunity this week to get out of the classroom and take a lesson from Mother Nature at the annual Outdoor Adventure Camp.

This is the fifth year the event has taken place at the Girl Scout Camp on Cleawox Lake.

Program co-founder and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) instructor Ben Wells is happy with the turnout of both students and volunteers for this year’s camp.

“We have about 230 kids taking part in camp this year and close to 70 volunteers helping to pull this off,” he said. “We are lucky to have so many people from the community, including members of the Coast Guard and the National Forest Service, and people who just have a passion for being outdoors. They all want to share what they know with our kids… and it’s awesome!”

Students at Outdoor Adventure Camp spend the day participating in a number of activities that connect them to the natural world in a more interactive way then traditional school activities.

Archery, kayaking and canoeing, hiking and learning how to set up a campsite and cook food on an open fire are all lessons taught by qualified volunteers.

“These are people with high levels of outdoor oriented skills. They are not going to be making copies in the office or helping in a classroom. They have a passion for the outdoors and they want to share their knowledge and experience with the students,” Wells said. “This is a great opportunity for people in the community to be involved with the school district in ways that are outside of the classroom.”

This year also included classes to familiarize students with skills used by native cultures to identify and gather plants that have nutritional or medicinal properties. Cooking, beadmaking and tie-dyeing options were available, and students were encouraged to participate in as many parts of the program as they wish.

While learning outdoor skills and having fun are the focus of the
Outdoor Adventure Camp, there
are some less apparent benefits to students who attend the four-day camp.

“We have a number of goals for the week, one of which is too give our fifth- and seventh-graders an opportunity to spend a week together, undergoing a number of challenges, to forge stronger relationships with the older students, so the transition from elementary to middle schools won’t be so difficult,” Wells said.

Unfortunately, the future of the program is somewhat in doubt.

Drastic cuts to the block grant that funds the Outdoor Adventure Camp through the “Twilight Education Program” has forced the district to reduce the services offered to students after school. This has led to an elimination of meals and supervised activities for students that wish, or need, to stay at school after classes have ended for the day.

“It costs somewhere between $10-15,000 dollars to hold the camp, depending on what activities and other things, like meals and transportation, we include,” Wells said. “And the school district has some work to do.”

Wells will meet with Siuslaw Superintendent Andy Grzeskowiak this summer to discuss possibilities for the program.

“After camp wraps up this year, the planning team is going to look at our finance reserves from our donors and figure our best approach to meet the needs of the students,” Grzeskowiak said. “There is quite a bit of interest in the community to return to an outdoor education program that has the overnight component. So many people speak of that week from their middle school days as one of the greatest experiences of their lives.”

On the positive side of the ledger, voters approved Measure 99 in 2016, which takes four percent of the state’s lottery funds and dedicates them to creating an Outdoor Education Fund. This revenue stream has some restrictions as to its use and while voters overwhelmingly approved measure 99, the specifics of obtaining and utilizing this money is still being worked out.

According to Grzeskowiak, there will more than likely be some changes to the program in the future.

“With the passage of Measure 99, outdoor school funds can be spent for fifth- or sixth-grade students for either a day or overnight educational experience,” Grzeskowiak said. “We cannot continue with our current format building relationships between fifth- and seventh-graders to ease the transition to middle school and use the M99 funds to cover all of the program costs.”

Historically, Siuslaw’s outdoor school has been a sixth-grade activity.

“Since our current fifth-graders have had Outdoor Adventures this year, the program at sixth-grade would not be eligible for M99 funds if we spent any M99 funds this year on camp, since the measure’s funds will not cover any costs related to seventh-graders. So, we are caught in the middle of a legislative gap if we move the program back to the middle school,” Grzeskowiak said.

He clarified that the program would not necessarily go away.

“The format may change as it moves back to the sixth-grade level. There has been too much work done by staff, students and people in the community to not bring outdoor camp back for Siuslaw students,” Grzeskowiak said. “We are just having to wrestle with the funding requirements of the state and the possible transition back to the middle school level.”

Wells also wants community members to know that they can donate to Siuslaw School District to specifically support the Outdoor Adventure Program.

“People interested in donating to the program can contact me, Mr. Dougherty or Ms. Barnard, the team leaders from the fifth- and seventh-grade,” Wells said. “We do a lot of teamwork and they put in a lot of hours to make this happen. There is an Outdoor Adventures account set up at the middle school and we can help them with their donations.”

The enthusiasm exhibited by Wells and the teachers and volunteers who participate in the camp is reflected by dozens of students swirling around the adults, laughing, talking and, yes, learning. It is a much different level of energy and excitement than at a typical school function.

Wells believes the reason is simple: people, and especially kids, love being outdoors.

He also wants to thank Florence residents for helping to make this year’s camp a success.

“I just want to say thanks. Florence has been so good to us. This our fifth year of Outdoor Adventures and hopefully it won’t be our last,” Wells said. “And if one student, because of what we did here, has a better or more productive year, it makes all the work, money and time worth it.”

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