It is 9 am sharp, and a pint-size teenager, barely larger than the Liberty Bell she approaches, grabs a rope and begins tugging. The bell rings out three times into the cloudy morning, and the remote woods just past Suttle Lake, which were still and quiet just five minutes ago are transformed by a chattering group of teenagers, becoming as noisy as a high school pep rally.
Yes, it is summer camp.
But Caldera is unlike any other summer camp in the state, if not the country. Started 15 years ago, the camp matured quickly from an art program into something much more significant and sophisticated—a mentorship program for some of the most vulnerable middle and high schoolers in the state.
In groups of twos and threes and fours, eighth and ninth-grade campers shuffle uphill from their massive teepees where they sleep toward the informal mess hall, a collection of picnic tables enclosed under a stretched white canvas tent. Some are giggling; others waddle and bump into each other like tired buffalo as they grab trays of egg sandwiches and bowls of oatmeal.
The program provides three 10-day sessions each summer, drawing a mixed bag of teens—some from hard-luck families in Central Oregon, others from Portland's poorer neighborhoods. It is a group of black, white and Latino teenagers decidedly more ethnically mixed than the state's general population—and certainly more so than the nearby resort towns of Sisters and Black Butte. It is the demographic that child welfare workers, guidance counselors and juvenile court staff would label "at risk"—a term shunned at Caldera.
As the 60 teenagers tuck into the picnic tables for breakfast, one slender camper steps to the front of the assembly; the group hushes. Barely above a whisper, she reads a poem; when one camper begins to talk to a friend, five others swivel to hush him. Finished, the young girl returns to her table and the chatter erupts again for a moment before. A broad-shouldered counselor wearing a blue hooded sweatshirt bearing the "camp name" of Moon Rock takes her place at the front to give morning announcements; a climber and former counselor of gang-affected youth, Moon Rock lays out the itinerary for the day, peppering his instructions with words like "accountability," "responsibility," "choices" and "empowerment."
Another counselor leans in to explain to me, "It is a very grounding thing to be in nature," he says. "We detach the students from their electronic devices and what is reality for them, and put them into what is really real—and, in doing so, find a sense of themselves."
But in spite of all this discussion about intentional mentoring and thinly veiled therapy, most of the talk over breakfast is about a rambunctious campers-versus-counselor Capture the Flag game the evening before and the small swarm of "killer bees" that stung a few campers. It is Day Four of camp.
Oregon has some of the most deplorable and troubling high school graduation rates in the country, with only 58 percent of Latino and 54 percent of black students (the worst rate in the country) graduating in four years. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 70 percent of white students, who traditionally graduate at higher rates, make it through high school in Oregon—a rate lower than that of any other state in the country and a number primarily hampered by children from working-class families in Central Oregon, where, in 2011, Redmond graduation rates dipped below 50 percent.
But the numbers for Caldera are remarkable, with nearly perfect graduation rates for the students who attend the summer program throughout their high school years; numbers too convincing to be coincidence.
Fifteen years ago, ad executive Dan Wieden, as in Wieden+Kennedy, the powerhouse Portland-based agency that has built the Nike image and clever ads for the likes of Miller, Coke and Old Spice, started Caldera with a fairly simple, but highly effective, calculation: Among Central Oregon's towering ponderosa and pine trees, campers are paired with world-class artists in filmmaking, poetry, photography and cartooning sessions; each class is cleverly disguised to teach life lessons and provide gentle mentorship, along with campfire intentions and confidence-building sessions to reinforce these lessons.
Whether stemming from lack of finances, rickety family structures, drug abuse, domestic violence, or a combination of all-the-above, the attending teens generally are the ones most likely to lack mentorship at home—and subsequently often also lack confidence and opportunities. At Caldera, they are matched with high-caliber artists, like a San Francisco photographer who recently wrapped up a three-year stint in South Africa and is teaching the summer students to produce clever photo autobiographies that mimic album covers; a costume artist who worked on the "Lion King" set; and, a L.A. filmmaker who worked at Caldera last session and liked it so much he volunteered to stick around for another few weeks. For many students, it is a rare infusion of intensive parenting, a 10 day fix that can keep them going throughout the year.
"I came for the first time in 1999," says Adiana Wilmont, who grew up in Portland and has returned this summer as lead counselor. She's wearing big silver hoop earrings and a blue T-shirt with Snoopy silk-screened on it. She looks like she still could be a teenage camper, but this last spring she graduated from Howard University, an elite predominantly African-American college in Washington, D.C., and this fall she will begin pre-med classes at Portland State; she plans to become a pediatrician.
"The first time I came to camp, I remember crying every night. I was so homesick," admits Wilmont with a broad smile. "I feel for them," she says, referring to the current campers. "There are bugs, and they miss their family."
Since then, Wilmont has returned nearly every summer—first as a camper and then as a counselor and role model.
Like Wilmont, each summer dozens of students come to Caldera—many returning for a second, third and even fourth sessions, some brought to camp by siblings who had attended in previous years. It is this continuity, mentorship and maturity that steadily shape the successful and confident 18-year- olds that Caldera graduates each year.
Anael Deannis also grew up in North Portland, in what had been a predominantly an African-American neighborhood. Although the area has gentrified over the past decade, it was rife with gang violence in the '90s.
"I was happy to get away from home," Deannis declares languidly. "I was angry I was leaving camp. It felt like 10 days was too short." With half-drawn eyelids, Deannis carries an air of patience and easy going friendliness.
Deannis, whose camp name is "Big Bird", easily could be mistaken for a D-1 University of Oregon linebacker. He wears a XXL white collar shirt, remarkably clean for being out in the woods for the past few weeks. "This is not your average camp," he continues. "Coming from North Portland, these were things we wouldn't be able to do in our everyday lives. Art programs were getting cut from the schools, but here we picked up cameras, learned Final Cut Pro, were shooting music videos."
Deannis attended Caldera throughout his middle and high school years, and has returned each summer as a counselor. During the academic year he runs an afterschool program serving roughly 300 low-income students. When asked how much credit he gives to Caldera for shaping his career choice and personal development, he doesn't blink.
"I'd give it all. 100 percent," he says. "Who knows where I could have ended up? Coming to Caldera took me out of the city. I have so many friends who are dead or in jail. Being able to come out here and getting a different perspective makes you want to change your approach to life." He pauses for a moment before adding, "If I haven't come here, who knows where I would have been? I wouldn't have been working with kids or trying to make a difference in their lives."
The space at Caldera is a greatest hits of Oregon beauty—ponderosas, a gurgling stream, hills that hunch along the boundaries and, at the center, Blue Lake, which is the cold deep filled bowl of a collapsed volcano that lends the site its name.
"You can put an ice cube in there," assures Turiya Autry, "and it wouldn't melt even on the hottest day." A hip-hop artist and, for several years, an instructor at Portland State, Autry now serves as Caldera's education director.
"I like to talk a lot to the students about 'manifesting,' that these things that we think about, talk about, put energy towards come into being," says Autry in her measured voice. "And," she continues, "we can change our realities and impact the world around us. What do I want this to look like?"
She admits that her childhood looked a lot like those of these kids—poor and unsettled, she bounced around the West Coast and was a teenage mom finally moved to Portland to be around extended family. She claims that art has helped her find context and stability. Moreover, both of her children grew up going to Caldera; this fall her daughter will begin attending Stanford.
"For me, though," she explains, "success it isn't just going to college, it is about being comfortable in your own skin and knowing that you are an amazing person that has something to contribute to the world, and engaging in that in a positive way."
"Sometimes success looks like someone who is quiet and shy, and come a couple years later they are leading a song at campfire," she adds.
Autry edges into a barn at the far edge of the camp where two instructors are running a cartooning class.
The instructor gently asks the students to stop drawing for a moment. They hesitate. "I know," she quietly says, "it is more fun to doodle, but put your pencils down and pay attention." Slowly each student sets down his or her pencil. In the front row, one girl with short bobbed hair and black-rimmed glasses delicately sets down her pencil, but continues to look down at her piece of paper.
The instructor edges towards her. "Did you draw that?" she asks about a series of cartoon figures. The girl doesn't twitch. After a moment, the instructor adds, "It's really funny."
The girl raises her chin, looks directly at the instructor, and smiles broadly.
It is Day Four at camp.
On Saturday, Caldera will host an open house, 11am – 1 pm. From Highway 20, drive past Suttle Lake and follow signs to Caldera.