Portland State Magazine Fall 2022

PORTLAND STATE’S connection to Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp stretches back 50 years, when students first began working at the camp. In 1995, the two officially partnered to create one of the university’s first senior-year capstone courses. Seniors who sign up for the course train to serve as counselors at the camp. It’s an opportunity to put what they’ve learned in class to real-world use while spending one-on-one time with a population that often gets overlooked. Over the years, more than 5,000 students have completed the course. “If you have 5,000 students doing something, the word of mouth is the strongest selling point,” said former PSU Capstone Coordinator Ann Fullerton, who has been connected to the camp for 54 years. FULLERTON first heard about Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp while working for the now-shuttered Fairview Training Center in Salem, a state facility for those with developmental disabilities. At that time, in the 1960s, the camp represented the sole week out of the year that many residents left the facility. The university’s partnership with the camp began just as the field of special education itself began to widen, thanks to landmark court decisions along with legislation like the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974. “The two have kind of grown together,” Fullerton said. But while resources for those with developmental disabilities have expanded in the decades since, stigmas, though dwindled, have remained.The partnership with PSU offers a bridge between the campers’ world and the rest of the community. “They’re getting that experience with people who, out on the street, might never talk to them,” Fullerton said. “It’s just me and my camper and we have all this time to get to know each other.” One classic way of coaxing campers out of their protective shells: karaoke. Late one morning in July, a group of campers, called the “adventure group,” opted to rest around the campfire following a flurry of activity. Perhaps in preparation for the dance scheduled that night, the group decided on a karaoke session. One of the campers, “Captain”Matthew Stone, leapt at the opportunity, performing Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song.”Whenever the phrase “fight song” came around, he would wave his hands and kick his feet. “[Outside of camp], they’re looked at and they’re stared at, and they’re made fun of,” Cushing said.“They get to come [to camp] and they get to be themselves.They don’t feel like they’re different.They feel like they’re one of everybody.” The sense of connection and acceptance that grows between campers and their counselors is part of what makes the experience so profound, and why many onetime counselors have returned over the years to serve in new roles. “Those connections don’t just stop with that person that we might’ve been paired with as counselors or that we’ve met along the way,” Cushing said. “It really starts to trickle into families and friends and caregivers, and this network keeps growing into this huge family.” Sometimes literally. Cushing helped convinced one camper’s sister to become a physician for the camp. THE PARTNERSHIP with PSU’s capstone program allows the camp to offer a roughly 1:1 counselor-to-camper ratio for the typical 500 campers who attend each year. In addition, a staff of about 50 with special education experience trains and mentors the camp counselors. Each week, the camp places campers in groups of eight to 10, with at least one counselor per camper plus two staffers per group. “You need that level of support to make this outdoor experience possible,” Fullerton said. The hands-on assistance with daily activities can be the most important—and challenging—aspect of the day for counselors. “There’s lots of really fun and funny things and great memories. But there’s also a lot of really hard, challenging things as well, and I guess that’s where the depth of connections come from,” said Nathalie Wollman ’10, the course instructor for the capstone class and a former counselor. The camp’s pool is one area where the availability of counselors and staff is crucial. Heated to 90 degrees to allow muscles to relax, the pool is a popular spot for campers to swim, play volleyball, or just lounge. For those who use wheelchairs, the pool has a waterproof chair, allowing counselors and staff to wheel the camper down a lengthy ramp and transfer them to a noodle. Christina Morrison, a camp counselor this past summer, is completing her social work degree and capstone project at PSU. She said that the biggest challenge for her and other social workers, who are natural “helpers,” is allowing the campers to fully decide for themselves what they would like to do in a given moment. “They’re really able to do things if you let them.The only disability is not having the opportunity,”Morrison said. “It’s just opened me up to listening to them more instead of myself.” At other times, counselors may need to give campers the extra push to attempt a new challenge. Megan Atkinson ’19, a former counselor who returned this year to lifeguard, recalled a camper in 2019 who was hesitant to use a canoe. But once he saw others hitting the water, he decided to give it a try. “We didn’t go far, but it was to his comfort zone,” Atkinson said. 30 // PORTLAND STATE MAGAZINE ABOVE: Counselors spend one-on-one time with their campers throughout the week.