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.”
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.”
Elise Deschaine, a 14-year old freshman at Central Catholic, is already one of the best young golfers in Oregon, placing in two tournaments in Oregon and winning the top spot in the The Olympic Club in San Francisco. In between school and practicing her skills as a golfer, she gives back to the organization that built her up to success: First Tee of Greater Portland.
Her mother, Jasmine Descahine, in an interview with Fox12, said, ” This course here, the Children’s Course, is where she first started playing golf and taking lessons.”
Her initial reason for golfing was purely to make friendships and have fun. However, five years later, her mindset is drastically different. “I just gave it all I got this year and it definitely paid off,” Elise said.
“I always had a desire to beat my dad one day, so that’s kind of the reason I stuck with it to reach the goal, which I did.” However, she’s not letting her talent get the better over her and is now helping as a mentor for the First Tee of Greater Portland.
“She comes out about once a week and hangs with our younger girls in the program,” said Justin with the First Tee of Greater Portland.
Elise thoroughly enjoys helping the young girls. “It’s just so fun to give back to young aspiring girls who were like me five years ago. When I’m on the golf course and it’s just me and the ball and a club, it’s a great feeling.”
Grammy-winning artist Chance the Rapper has just gifted $1 million to Chicago’s public schools, where he received his education as a child. The money will benefit the arts and extra-curricular programs of ten elementary and high schools in the area.
Chance stated in a press conference, “I’m honored to make this donation to Chicago Public Schools Foundation and help cultivate Chicago creative minds. I’m committed to helping Chicago’s children have quality learning experiences that include the arts.”
Chicago schools have been dealing with budget issues for years, and spending cuts have disproportionately affected arts programs. Chance has been a strong advocate for improving education standards in Chicago: earlier this month, the artist met with Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner to share his concerns about recent education budget cuts. He has received praise from various members of the community and from such notable figures as Michelle Obama, who described the artist as “an example of the power of arts education.”
Chance desires his gift to be “a call to action,” and hopes that further measures will be taken to reintroduce various after-school and arts activities to Chicago public schools. The artist stated that he will “do all I can to support Chicago’s most valuable resource: its children.”
In 2012, Hamilton Seymour lost his father to suicide. The event left 15 year old Seymour, a member of the Nooksack Indian Tribe from Bellingham, suffering. Seymour wanted to find a positive way to cope with the loss. In doing so, he found healing through paddling his canoe.
Seymour told the Seattle Times that canoeing has been a great help, “It’s my personal outlet. It’s where I can get away, even if I’m with people.”
Seymour’s family has a strong tradition of paddling. His father was a champion paddler. “He was a phenomenal man,” Seymour said, “and I’d like to carry out his name and his spirit through paddling. … I feel like paddling is only one of the few things that I have left of him.”
Paddling helped Seymour handle stress and improved his mental health. Now, Seymour is encouraging other members of his tribe to cope with grief by carving canoes and celebrating their culture by singing traditional Native songs as they paddle. Through this, Seymour hopes to keep the culture alive through traditional sports. He has recruited 11 other teens to help him paddle canoes during races.
Seymour’s efforts are helping his community, “What paddling is doing for us is getting us stronger — obviously physically, but also mentally, spiritually and emotionally. It’s just beautiful.”
Seymour’s work in his community is gaining attention. Earlier this year, Seymour, along with five Indian youth from across the United States, won a “champion of change” award from the Center for Native American Youth. The award recognizes Native youth who are making a difference in their communities by drawing attention to issues such as sexual abuse and suicide.
In addition to winning the award, Seymour was chosen to introduce Michelle Obama before her speech at the first White House Tribal Youth Gathering in Washington D.C.
Seymour’s friends say that he has grown a lot. Sarah Scott, a Lummi Nation’s tribal youth-recreation program mentor, commented on Seymour’s growth, “I’ve known Hammi my whole life — he’s our baby. In the last year, he’s just blossomed into this natural leader on a national platform, and to me that is just so inspiring.”
Seymour also feels that his life is changing for the better, “I can’t tell the future, but I’m really hoping, and I really feel like it’s going to be great.”