June 24, 2020 — The young men spending time at the Camp Florence Youth Transitional Facility, located on South Jetty Road, are in the area as part of a comprehensive program designed to improve their life skills and return them to the world and workforce better prepared to succeed.
Camp Florence is run by the Oregon Youth Authority, (OYA), which oversees nine facilities in the state, “providing both secure and transitional environments that ensure public safety and provide accountability and reformation opportunities to youth who represent an unacceptable risk in the community.”
Most of the youth on site in Florence have been sent here as an alternative to more traditional incarceration. Their offenses are usually of a juvenile nature, but not always. The youth are assigned a personal counselor and, in most cases, an additional coordinator will monitor the overall progress made during their time at camp.
The focus of much of the work done by Camp Florence staff and residents is on preparing them for future meaningful employment and teaching them the requisite skills in a chosen field.
One of the careers that some of the young men are currently learning is heavy equipment operation — a skill that is in high demand and pays well. The training to eventually become a certified Heavy Equipment Operator is being provided by Baker Technical Institute (BTI), based in Baker City, Ore., in conjunction with OYA and local schools.
BTI Program Coordinator Sandy Mitchell said, “BTI is pleased to be partnering with Multnomah Educational Services District and OYA to provide heavy equipment operator training for its students in Florence.”
In April, BTI provided approximately 80 hours of introductory operator training at the Florence youth facility using its virtual reality CAT simulators. This mobile operator training platform is equipped with the latest technology to train heavy construction equipment such as dozers, graders, wheel loaders and excavators.
This week, BTI Lead Instructor Brody Charpilloz returned to Florence to train students using actual heavy equipment to demonstrate the students’ skills. This was the final step in earning a certificate of completion, which certifies the training levels for each piece of equipment once students reach the minimum operating standards.
Joy Koenig, the principal of Three Lakes, Riverside, Ocean Dunes and Ponderosa Creek High Schools, works closely with Camp Florence staff and believes there is a benefit to students and employers from the BTI training.
“Our students at Camp Florence are given opportunities to highlight their strengths and develop their curiosity about various careers. This began with a simulation training which lasted for two weeks in April,” Koenig said. “Indeed, every chance we get, we look for medium- to high-wage skills where our students can learn, be curious, be inspired and have hope. This is the right work to do and we’re glad BTI is partnering with us.”
The practice site for the heavy equipment training was across from the Florence Events Center on Quince Street, which was suggested by Florence Public Works Director Mike Miller.
Here, students were able to get hands-on practice in a real-life setting.
“What a great program and opportunity for the young adults from Camp Florence,” Miller said. “After several weeks of classroom and simulator training, having hands-on practical training in the operation of the equipment is really fantastic.”
Miller had the opportunity to meet the students and the instructor on Tuesday.
“You should have seen the smiles on the students’ faces. These are skills that will stay with the, as they forge a new direction,” Miller said. “The best part of the training is that, once they successfully graduate from the program, they will have certification on the operation of each machine. Operation of equipment is a high demand area for employment and should provide these individuals a great opportunity.”
A new obstacle to the learning process at Camp Florence has been the COVID-19 pandemic. The close physical contact during training presents health concerns, most of which have been recognized and addressed. Clear-cut strategies for dealing with the virus put forth by the Oregon Health Authorities are being incorporated into new OYA policies, as all residents and staff are in confined spaces.
These protocols are essential in the effort to keep the camp residents and the local community safe from exposure to the virus.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, OYA has put in place new procedures to protect youth and staff in OYA facilities, including protocols for cleaning and disinfection, use of face coverings, physical distancing and education on health guidelines.
Another challenge is the current racial unrest reverberating across the nation.
In response to recent race-related turmoil, OYA Director Joe O’Leary and Deputy Director Nakeia Daniels released a statement expressing understanding to the young men — many of whom have experienced racial animosity.
“First, we want to say to our friends, coworkers and youth of color: we know you’re hurting. Every time there’s a racially charged incident or senseless police killing, such as that of George Floyd, it brings up the trauma of blatant and cruel racially motivated encounters you or your loved ones have had,” stated OYA. “You worry that it might be your brother, sister, wife, child or you who is the next one to be victimized.
“It brings up the frustration you feel that when you share your experiences of oppression and systemic racism, and they are routinely denied, minimized and ignored …”
The letter from OYA continued by recommending staff and residents read a recently published op-ed piece in the L.A. Times written by NBA Hall of Fame athlete and noted African-American historian Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. They included this excerpt from Abdul-Jabbar’s article in the e-mail to staff and youth:
“The Black community is used to the institutional racism inherent in education, the justice system and jobs. Even though we do all the conventional things to raise public and political awareness … the needle hardly budges,” he wrote.
Despite the challenges Camp Florence has been facing, Koenig said staff and students are committed to finding solutions together.
“This result is a collective effort — and it is fantastic,” said Koenig. “To be able to serve students in this capacity is one of the greatest joys of my job, and I am proud to be a part of the positive work we are doing to reach and inspire our students through mutual respect and civility.”