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A Property, A Dream, A Mission Sisters-area camp replaces problems with possibilities for at-risk youth 

Once or twice every summer, Dan Wieden - the Portland-based ad man who coined Nike's Just Do It slogan and whose award-winning agency Wieden+Kennedy boasts offices as far and wide as London and Shanghai - packs a day bag and heads off for camp in the Cascades outside of Sisters.

Camp attire for Oregon's global media mogul? Nikes, of course. Levi's, another client, check. In them, Wieden, at 66, cuts the trim figure of a CEO who doesn't spend much time with his feet propped up on a desk. A straw cowboy hat adds some Central Oregonian, gentleman-rancher panache.

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But maybe Wieden's most telling accessory is a brand-neutral necklace of blue and green beads. A cookie-sized medallion, handcrafted from a cross-section of Ponderosa pine dangles from the end, close to his heart. On this charm is painted a nickname that Wieden chose for himself when he founded Camp Caldera back in 1996: Papa Bear.

"It took me a long time to realize everything that name was actually communicating," says Wieden, contemplating his status as symbolic father figure of a camp that primarily serves "at-risk" youth from both sides of the Cascades.

The camp, which offers a mix of environmental and arts education for an audience that typically gets little exposure to either, has grown from Wieden's passionate belief that art isn't a frill. It is a tool for the best thinkers in all areas of society: "I don't care how you apply it - music, policy, science - but the best minds are creative minds."

Also according to Wieden, for whom Camp Caldera is "not a project" but rather "a family," the arts are an essential part of development for young people. They are particularly transformational for those who grow up without knowing financial and emotional security.

"I wish that people who are living much more secure lives could understand that these are all of our children. Your children are not just your biological offspring. These children belong to all of us. And when we let them slip through the cracks - well, it's just bloody crazy."

Originally, Wieden had envisioned a Portland-focused program that might address a specific and troubling paradox that he'd identified within the advertising industry. He describes his inspirational quandary: "I hire a bunch of white, middle-class kids, basically, pay them enormous amounts of money, and what they do, often, is take the culture of the inner city and sell it back to the people who created it in order to move product for our clients.

"And the people who give rise to that very potent creative culture don't necessarily realize that the agency business is a place where they could have a voice. I figured if could start a camp where kids could learn the arts and find their way into this business, that would be fabulous."

Wieden established the camp in 1996 as a family foundation, and it evolved into a true family effort. The rural character of the 90-acre campus had appealed to Wieden's late wife, Bonnie, who insisted that this was the place for the camp her husband envisioned. That he had at first envisioned it as a retirement project was of no matter: the land had spoken, and the time was now. Thus Bonnie, whom long-term staffers fondly recall as "Checkers," is credited with getting the ball rolling as well as having rooted Caldera's mission firmly in the landscape of its campus.

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Soon enough the Wieden children, too, began pitching in. Daughters Laura and Tami developed an equestrian program. Wieden recalls his son, Bryan, patrolling the grounds, making sure the boys and girls kept to their assigned teepees at night. And perhaps most instrumentally, Wieden discovered an inspired organizing partner in his daughter Cassie, who signed on to the project on the condition that Caldera incorporate an environmental element.

Now - 15 years, three revised mission statements and over 1,600 campers later - Wieden speaks with the paternal wonder of one whose brainchild has taken on a life of its own. "We quickly realized that this is not an advertising camp. This is an arts camp and a nature camp, and those things are wedded more closely than I had understood in the beginning."

Each summer the campers arrive at the idyllic lakeside campus near Sisters, spilling out of busses that converge from inner-city Portland, from Oregon's Indian reservations, and from Central Oregon. The vast majority of Caldera campers have grown up in poverty. Many have spent their formative years fighting off the non-imaginary monsters of neglect, abuse, and addiction that prey, particularly, on kids who are poor.As a result of challenging life experiences, many kids come to Camp Caldera for the first time with backpacks full of fear. Some campers are literally afraid of the dark - they've never been in nature, have never heard an owl hoot or a coyote howl. Some arrive afraid of getting to know people with darker skin, or lighter skin, than their own. About 60 percent of the Caldera's campers are persons of color - mostly Native American, Hispanic, African American; the remaining 40 percent are Caucasian.

"What they have in common," says Wieden, "is what they don't have. They are bound by this experience in life. They become very close because of that. It's much more important than the color of their skin."

Wieden relates one story of a girl, a white girl, from "the dry side" who arrived at camp wanting "nothing to do with this urban youth thing" and who went home a week later with her hair done up in cornrows by her new Portland friends. Over the course of their weeklong stay, campers may contribute to a photographic field guide of the Caldera environs or develop skills in African drumming. They may create a photo collage on the idea of beauty ("my mind is beautiful" writes a camper named Dough Boy), or design a puppet entirely from repurposed fabrics.

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Some projects are collaborative, and bear the fanciful fruits of creative cross-pollination: the puppets, perhaps, will star in a film that features them dancing through a forest of pinus ponderosa to a soundtrack of African drumming. Other projects are profoundly personal, and bear witness to traumas and transformations. Consider the work of one teen whose parents were so incapacitated by alcoholism during her infancy that she was originally taught to talk by an older sister who was, herself, just a toddler. This camper's film features images of herself diving into a lake, dipping beneath the water. "It was elegant," says Tricia Snell, executive director. "It was about healing, about the letting go of the pain and embracing something beautiful and new."

The camp sessions wind down with a ritual climb up the Dream Tree. Donning helmet and harness, campers work their way toward the top of a 40-foot ponderosa. They will tie a fabric scrap, on which they have written a wish, to the top of the tree where it remains, with other dreams of other campers, like prayer flags in the breeze. Then, when the camper is ready, with the encouragement of a team of peer-belayers calling out "we support you," he or she will take a leap of faith, jumping from treetop back down to the ground.

Caldera programming extends into year-round mentoring for students who attend any of Caldera's partner schools in Portland and Central Oregon, all of which have a high concentration of students living at or near poverty levels. Snell points to the long-term nature of the program, which sticks with kids from 6th grade through their high school years and excels both in staff and camper retention, as a key component of Caldera's success. The program boasts of a 93 percent graduation rate among participants, in comparison to much lower rates at their home schools. This past May, the Obama administration distinguished Caldera as one of the top arts-and humanities-based programs in the country, naming it one of 50 finalists, from an applicant pool of nearly 500, for the 2011 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award.

The desire to reach more kids, and to find sustainable funding models for Caldera and other arts programs, is the impetus behind Wieden's latest initiative. Dubbed Transformation Camp, the program aims to become a kind of incubation facility where leaders in the arts, neuroscience, and media can gather to discuss the delivery of arts programming to underserved youth on a broader scale.

The first Transformation Camp, held on the Caldera Campus this past May, brought together like-minded organizations from as far away as the South Bronx and Venice, Calif.

"We discussed what we're really good at and proud of. And also, where we flounder," explains Wieden. "Also, how we might come together an on-going basis and form an alliance and see if we can't, as a group, become an incubator for other groups. So it's no longer just about my camp or your camp. It's about how we might succeed together.

"And also it's about how we might become a political force to get more funding for arts in the schools in this country."

Case in point: in response to budget woes, all of the middle schools served by Caldera in Jefferson and Deschutes counties are fed by elementary schools that have done away with arts and music specialists in the last two years; both band programs and visual arts programs at these middle schools have also been pared down.

"There's this sense out there that the arts have nothing to do with innovation. It's such a misunderstanding. The fact of the matter is, China is now patterning what we used to do in the schools in order to become more innovative, while we're going back and imitating China when they were struggling. It's just crazy," says Wieden.

But neither the odds-defying statistics nor the impressive accolades nor an ambitious national agenda fully illustrate Camp Caldera's essence. Returning campers and long-term staffers alike know Caldera as a place that changes lives. It inspires dedicated donors to effusively use language that they know can make them sound a bit kooky at a cocktail party, words like "magic," and "juju" and "love."

Spend a day at Camp Caldera, and you'll hear the word "love" a whole lot.

As Wieden puts it, "A camp is a magical thing for these kids. It is physically, culturally different. They get a new name, a new set of friends. They are safe, and they are loved. And then they can find their own voice.

"Once anyone finds their voice they find their place in the world, and that makes all the difference."

Caldera in the Community

One of Caldera's greatest accomplishments has been its ability to translate camp projects into real-world opportunities and life experience. The following is a list of Oregon businesses that have partnered with Caldera.

Atelier 6000

A May 2011 exhibition featured film and photography projects from Caldera youth from Madras, Redmond and Bend alongside the work of professionals from Atelier 6000 and Caldera's Artists in Residence programs. "For the students, participating actively in a professional studio has added another dimension to their creative process," says Pat Clark, founder of Atelier 6000. "And for some of our members, it has been refreshing to see how receptive and open young people can be."

National Forest Service/Metolius Headwaters Project

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Caldera middle school students recently spent time at Deschutes Forest Ranger's station taking photographs, writing poetry and dreaming up ways that art could be incorporated into the park space at the headwaters. "When I'm out there with the kids, I realize that the way they are describing simple little things is so much more powerful than what we have in our traditional guides, which are stale and linear. This is an opportunity to start changing language so the broader community can start getting a deeper understanding of the connectedness of natural systems and man's role in those systems," says Dan Heagarty, a Caldera board member who also serves on the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board.

TV Storyteller

Formerly a senior producer for Dateline NBC, Emmy-Award winner Sandy Cummings, producer of the Bend-based TV Storyteller production company, credits Caldera for opening doors for young Central Oregonian artists, especially for those from remote, rural areas. This past year, Cummings developed a mentoring relationship with an aspiring Caldera cameraman from Crooked River Ranch, bringing him along on local shoots, introducing him to working professionals, coaching him through the production of a documentary short. "I don't think he'd been introduced to filmmaking before Caldera," says Cummings, "But he can now stand up in front of an audience and say, 'I am a filmmaker.'"

Sarabella, Upcycled

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Owner Sara Wiener ran a workshop for about 12 high schoolers in her shop, teaching them how to do the "upcycling" of plastic bags in order to create really cool and practical products. The participants went home with a belt, bag or purse they had fused themselves. Wiener looks forward to running a similar workshop with Caldera youth in Portland


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