Into the forest: Camp LEAD – an out of classroom learning experience

October 2019 Posted in Uncategorized

A Camp LEAD group working at Silver Falls State Park. Amy Johnson

By Melissa Wagoner

The importance of getting kids out of the classroom and involved in the natural world is something Special Education teacher Mike Johnson viewed as essential. 

“He started doing outdoor programs like Outward Bound stuff,” Mike’s daughter, Amy, remembered. “And he quickly realized how important it was for them – how many other skills were part of that.”

Those initial experiences had a profound effect on Mike. He couldn’t get them out of his head, even after he retired from teaching. And so, when he met Sam Vanderbeek – a ranger at Silver Falls State Park with a background in inclusive and adaptive outdoor education and recreation programming – he jumped at the chance to collaborate on a new, innovative program that would take leadership education to the next level – and Camp LEAD was born.

“My dad saw this need and Sam had the experience running outdoor programs,” Amy said. “It sort of became a passion.”

Camp LEAD – which stands for leadership, empowerment, advocacy and development – got its start in 2015 as a partnership between the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, the Oregon Department of Vocational Rehabilitation and the Youth Transition Program. But in more recent years, Heart of Oregon Corps – a nonprofit that provides vocational training and continuing education opportunities to 16 to 22-year-olds – has taken administrative lead.

“[T]hey had the infrastructure to handle the grant funding, youth and staff employment, and insurance to cover it all,” Vanderbeek – currently working for Heart of Oregon Corps as a Project Coordinator – said, noting that what was originally a trial program has quickly become a resounding success. “It was originally a three-year pilot grant from Vocational Rehabilitation, and we did something right because we are just completing year five.”

One of the reasons the program has worked so well is perhaps the almost instantaneous effect it has on the young adults who attend its week-long leadership camps.

“For a lot of kids this is the first time they’ve camped and the first time they’ve been on their own,” Amy said. “I’ve camped all my life – but you forget that it can be a really big deal.”

Worries about sleeping in a tent, using an outhouse and eating outside are all common phobias for first-time campers. And they are also the first step to developing new skills outside of the comfort zone.

“Usually if we can get them through the first night we can do it,” Amy said. “We’re like a 99 percent success rate. And once they stay, no one is like, ‘I wish I hadn’t done it.’ They’re at least proud they got through.”

By the end of four days of working as a team to complete park-assigned projects, setting nightly goals and developing a host of new skills most campers walk away with much more than that – a new sense of self-worth and, in most cases, a whole new group of friends.

Development of independence and empowerment skills is of the utmost importance for many are not given the chance to develop them elsewhere.

“A lot of them come from really difficult homes,” Amy said sadly. “The whole idea of the camp is that in summer a lot of them don’t do anything. They are inside and they don’t socialize. They’re not given as many opportunities as they should. Getting them out of their environment – the growth is really huge.”

Amy noted that many campers, like Soren Boeaneal, a 17-year-old camper from Portland, came into camp filled with trepidation, but had quickly been won over.

“Camping is fun,” Boeaneal said. “I liked walking and working hard and cooking and cleaning the tables and helping Amy with the campfire.”

Witnessing transformations, such as Boeaneal’s, is one of the reasons Camp LEAD is a rewarding experience for everyone – staff included.

“It’s a great experience being a person here doing the work,” Brenda Maynard, a Transition Specialist for both the Alsea and Monroe School Districts, said. “We always try to rope in another transition specialist for a day or a week. It gives them a chance to see. And we’re required to do summer hours. So it’s a good enrichment for that, too.”

Once the week is over, Camp LEAD’s goal is to continue working with the graduated campers.

“We have successfully transitioned many young people into Central Oregon Youth Conservation Corps’ summer programs and have gotten some employed with seasonal positions within the United States Forest Service,” Vanderbeek said. “Ideally I would like to see more transition into seasonal park staff positions, something we are still striving towards.”

Although still in its infancy, the Camp LEAD program has already made a remarkable impact on the lives of hundreds of participants and the hope is to continue serving more for years to come.

“We can always use donations for the operations of camp,” Tyler McRae, Summer Program Manager for Heart of Oregon Corps, said, noting that the program is currently fully dependent on Oregon Vocational Rehabilitation Services (OVRS) funding.

But Vanderbeek is confident that the important work that Camp LEAD does will guarantee its continued existence far into the future.

“Oregon of all the States has continuously been at the forefront of inclusion and integration for young people with disabilities,” Vanderbeek said. “Camp LEAD could only exist because of partnerships between state agencies, nonprofits, and committed people willing to invest their time and efforts.”


Silver Falls State Park and LaPine State Park each host three one-week summer camps for youth age 16 to 22 with diagnosed disabilities and enrollment in vocational rehabilitation courses. Participants must be capable of light physical labor for six hours per day. The program provides vocational work experience with minimum wage pay.

Jobs include: light trail maintenance, tree trimming or fire fuels reduction, facilities maintenance and painting.

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