Like many other summer camps, Oregon’s Camp Odakoda features a swimming hole, a fire pit, and canoes. The camp’s culture, however, is unique.
“Here, no one judges you, not even a tiny bit,” explains Zander Cloud, a 16-year-old camper. “There can be people who you have the same common interests with, and it just makes you feel connected in some way, and more involved than you would sometimes do in school.”
Zander is one of 85 young adults affected by autism spectrum disorder who gathered at Camp Odakoda for a week of fun and fellowship. The camp is the only facility in the Pacific Northwest which caters specifically to youth on the autism spectrum.
Misti and Ian Moxley founded the camp in 2010 to provide more opportunities for their autistic son. “That’s what we were looking for is–where can we take our son where he can find friends that really get him, and he can understand that maybe he’s different, but he’s not less important, that he’s not less of a person, that he just has to find his people,” Misti told KATU news.
Camp Odakoda staff members work to connect campers who have similar interests. Two kids who both enjoy fishing, for example, may share a room.
The camp strives to create a stress-free environment for all youth by maintaining a high counselor-to-camper ratio, and by eliminating surprises from the daily schedule. Camp staff also enforce a no-tolerance policy with regard to teasing.
“They do not tolerate bullies at all here, so you can be whoever you want to be,” explains 14-year-old Alex Witzens. “It’s really important, ’cause I’ve been bullied a lot and it’s nice to go somewhere, for one week you won’t be bullied and you can just let loose, have fun and be yourself.”
Staff member Jonathan Chase understands the challenges faced by young adults such as Alex. Jonathan himself was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at age 14. “We didn’t have camps like this when I was growing up,” he told KATU. “When I became an adult, I looked back and I thought how different it would’ve been if there was somebody there who understood me, who is standing up for people who are different.”
Now, Jonathan helps teens enjoy the relationships he lacked as a child. Youth at Camp Odakoda look up to Jonathan, who has successfully navigated the transition to adulthood, and lives independently. Zander and Alex plan to follow in his footsteps by becoming camp counselors after graduation: “you get to help people and you can be really friendly,” Zander explains.
Jonathan sums up his message to youth affected by autism. “I’m here as a reminder for the kids and for the adults that where we start isn’t where we finish,” he says. “Autism isn’t a ceiling, it’s just a hurdle.”
Local veteran, Charles Patrick, is a Purple Heart recipient who served in the Oregon Army National Guard for nearly six years. While deployed in Afghanistan in 2010, Charles hit an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) and suffered severe back problems that would lead to several surgeries and rehabilitation.
This Saturday, Charles received a special gift from the “Military Warriors Support Foundation” for his service: a new home in Jefferson that was mortgage-free along with a financial advisor for the next three years, all to help him adjust to civilian life and thrive as a honored veteran. Patrick aspires to attend Oregon State University to learn engineering.
In an interview with KATU2, Patrick stated, “Not only do I get a chance to have a house, but to really have a home. It’s crazy, and it’s just such an honor and it’s amazing. Luckily I don’t have to worry about buying the house, it’s just able to be provided. And like I said, it’s going to be life-alerting in a massively great way.”
Lear more about Patrick’s gift by watching the interview on KATU2.
At 12 years old, Rama Youssef fled her home in Damascus, Syria and faced bullying from American middle schoolers. At 16, she paved her way into De Salle North Catholic High School, in North Portland.
In March 2012, Youssef, recalled an exploding bomb close to where she attended middle school.
“It was then that my mother decided we had to leave,” Youssef said.
Her mother chose to seek asylum in Germany and her father remained in Syria, where he still resides. Youssef joined her older sister in America, who had previously married a Syrian- American man. That summer of 2012, she arrived in San Diego on a tourist visa.
Youssef started seventh grade in San Diego, speaking no English. She was anxious and shy, she revealed. Her classmates targeted her for being a foreginer.
“I was called a terroist by some of them,” she said.
But life got better for her. She made friends and became fluent in English. She felt as if her life got better by her second year of highschool.
Then in 2016, Youseef, her sister, and her sister’s husband all moved to Oregon, after her sister’s husband obtained a job at a furniture store in Portland.
Following the move, it was the summer of 2016 when Youssef worked at the Subway franchise, on North Interstate Avenue, where she became intrigued in the old-fashioned brick De Salle private school, a few blocks away.
Youssef was not sure if she would get admitted, as the school rarely permitted outside transfers.
She sealed her chance, after meeting with the school’s president, Tim Hennessy.
“There was this young girl on my couch, and she started to tell her story, she started to cry,” he recalled, who retired from De Salle last December. “She really touched my heart. Her story touched my heart.”
Youssef began her junior year at the school a few days later.
The school’s untraditional curriculum offers classes only for four days a week and requires students to work one day a week with a Portland-area business. Youssef worked with Williamette Week and became involved with numerous social justice issues. She advocated rights for immigrants and volunteered with Syrian refugees who recently resettled in Oregon.
Although she was experiencing opportunities, her immigration status was another obstacle to endure. Her status allowed her to work and live in America without fear of deportation, but did not allow her to recieve finanical aid.
De Salle president and Stephanie Barnhart, a friend and mentor of Youssef’s, encouraged her to try for finincial aid. Youssef was persistent with applying for schools and scholarships.
“She completely worked her butt off,” said Barnhart, who helped edit more than 24 scholarship applications Youssef submitted.
Her hardwork eventually paid off. California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, CA, offered her a full scholarship of $40,000 a year. However, she still has to deal with the costs of room and board, which escalated to another $15,000.
With that, Youssef had to work three jobs. She was a cashier at Dick’s Sporting Goods, a tennis instructor for kids, and a receptionist at Williamette Week.
She also started a GoFundMe page to help cover her room and board, which raised more than $10,000.
According to Youssef, the hardest thing she has faced was figuring out how to pay for college.
“There were moments when I thought it wasn’t possible,” she said.
Overall, she is grateful for this opportunity. She hopes to become a dentist in the future.
“America’s thrown a lot of opportunities my way,” she said. I’ve taken every single one of them. I want to give back to my country and help those in need with dental care. I want to be part of organizations that go to developing countries, risking their lives to help others. I want to work hard to give my parents better lives and get the chance to see them again.”
A group of seniors in Portland are committed to creating social, economic and educational opportunities for their young neighbors and friends.
Senior Advocates for Generational Equity (SAGE), the brainchild of Portland attorney Ward Greene, boasts nearly 200 members, and encourages participants to adopt a specific cause, such as access to school supplies for disadvantaged youth, or mentoring relationships with students.
For Greene, SAGE provides the opportunity to fulfill deferred hopes of world-changing action. “When we were young we wanted to make the world a better place, but we’ve consumed too much and frankly we’ve had too short a view,” he told KATU news.
Retired Portland teacher John Daggett expressed similar views. “This is a very important organization to catalyze the dreams and wishes of older adults for the next generations,” he stated.
SAGE regularly hosts guest speakers who emphasize the value of connections between youth and seniors. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff attracted a crowd of 700 people to SAGE’s venue. On September 12th, the group will host TV personality Van Jones at Portland State University’s Viking Pavilion.
In SAGE, Greene has found a new life purpose. “I sometimes say we’re trying to give forward and . . . it’s given my life a whole new meaning,” he explained. “The future needs all the advocates it can get.”
Washington resident Akhil Jhaveri knew he didn’t have much longer to live. But the father of three daughters had one last wish before he passed away: he wanted to see his children get married.
However, when doctors told Jhaveri’s family he had only days left on earth, none of the daughters’ weddings were imminent. That’s when a family friend proposed an idea: Jhaveri’s children could simulate a marriage ceremony, allowing their father to walk them down the aisle.
So, with help from friends and neighbors, the Jhaveri family planned the event. Community donors provided flowers, music, wedding gowns, and access to Vintage Gardens, a wedding venue in Ridgefield, Washington.
On wedding day, as evening approached, all three Jhaveri daughters donned white dresses and veils, and walked down the aisle with their father. “The event felt like a wedding,” noted KATU news reporter Lashay Wesley.
Family and friends who witnessed the event struggled to contain their emotions. “We’ve had a lot of time to process the fact that he is going to pass away, and that it’s going to be hard,” said Jordan Jhaveri. “It’s been difficult to see my dad, who I remember as this vibrant, hilarious human, sleeping as we go down the aisle together,” added Ashley Jhaveri.
Nevertheless, all three daughters felt grateful for the chance to grant their father’s final wish. The celebration highlighted both the Jhaveri’s love for one another, and the generosity of their community.
Multnomah County has been taking multiple measures this past year to challenge the stigma of mental health, and they recently introduced a new initiative that will involve TriMet.
Ads will be placed on the backs of buses, on benches, and at bus stops to share the stories of those struggling with mental illnesses. Leticia Sainz, in an interview with KATU2, explained their reasoning for sharing stories rather than statistics and facts. “Storytelling and stories is the way to change people’s hearts and minds around stigma. . . Our goal is to really tell just a small story about people in our community who have mental health challenges. These are people we all know and love, come from different walks of life.”
While not real people are used in the advertisements, the program made sure to pick images that would relate to the majority of diverse communities in Multnomah County, whether it is different ethnicities, ages, or gender.
Sainz concluded by stating, “We definitely hope that people get another insight into the people around them in our community and how prevalent it is to have people who are struggling with mental health concerns. . .That’s the story we’re telling because that’s the story of mental health in our community.”
Ads are already appearing on the back of buses and more will be revealed in the upcoming months.