So much more than summer camp

Repeat campers serve as role models, many on college paths

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Campers and counselors at 2007 4-H summer camp

Thirteen years ago, Isaac Camacho was a camper at the first Oregon 4-H international summer camp. At that time, Isaac says he wasn’t a good student and his teachers didn’t like him. Today, Isaac has finished his master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from Portland State University and he was recently accepted into Concordia University’s Transformational Leadership Educational Doctorate Program.

The hard work and success is Isaac’s. The inspiration, motivation and support is Mario Magana’s. Mario, a CPHHS associate professor, created the summer camps – one for migrant middle schoolers and another for multicultural campers – as a place for a diverse group of Oregon middle school students to converge and gain insight into their personal and career aspirations.

The five-day experience has provided thousands of campers with opportunities to learn about college and various professions, including natural resources, engineering, technology, forestry and the arts. The curriculum leaves plenty of room for traditional camp activities such as archery, canoeing and swimming and also includes opportunities for campers to develop their leadership skills and participate in multicultural activities.

“I created this program in order to provide middle school students with the opportunity to learn about college at an early age, including admission requirements and funding options,” Mario says. “I also want to expose youth to role models. I really believe youth lack professional role models. And when I talk about role models, I don’t just mean working adults but also older students for younger ones. What we strive to do is create a chain of role models involving career professionals, high school students, middle school students and elementary students.”

Mentoring Chain

Isaac has linked up that chain. He spent his first two years at camp as a camper, taking on a leadership role for the first time because his own counselor relied on him for help and he was becoming familiar with camp. He then spent the next four years helping younger campers as a counselor. The experience, he says, instilled confidence and lifelong relationship building skills.

“As a counselor, I never provided negative energy; I only provided support,” Isaac says. “There are kids who come from families that have been through it all. Throughout the week, I’d provide guidance and support to build our relationship. I never stopped believing in them, and every day I provided motivating words. My best memories involve kids spilling out their hearts on the last day, when even the toughest kids became vulnerable and accepted help. I related because that was also me, as a first-year camper.”

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Campers participate in archery

Another young person who made the camper-to-counselor transition is Luis Morales. Luis began attending 4-H international camps when he was in the fifth grade. During his first year, he was nervous and didn’t want to be there but his concern about not making friends quickly faded after he realized how much he enjoyed the experience. He attended three times as a camper and has served as a counselor for the past five years.

He’s come a long way since being the shy kid at camp. Luis will be attending University of Oregon this fall and is working toward a degree in Chemistry with a Business Administration minor. He credits his experiences at camp for the person he is today.

“These camp experiences completely changed who I am as a person,” Luis says. “I was an awkward, quiet and chubby kid who didn’t like to talk to new people. I was afraid of being judged or not fitting in because I was so accustomed to my friends back at home. Attending camp for the past eight years has helped me grow as a person – a better person. If it weren’t for these camps, I wouldn’t be as educated as I am today and I wouldn’t have tried so hard in school. These camps have made me a leader, which is something I never thought I was capable of doing. I’m very fortunate for that.”

Likewise, Isaac has been heavily influenced on a personal level from his experiences with the 4-H camps. He’s even testified at public hearings at the Oregon State Capitol in support of 4-H’s 2011-13 budget.

“The camps have expanded my vision as a human being and gave me a reason to exist,” Isaac says. “I’ve learned to become resilient and bounce back from adversity. I can effectively ask questions and have tools that guide me into the human being I am today. I’ve opened my eyes to my true identity and understand the importance of giving back to the community. Most importantly, the camps have taught me that Isaac Camacho is amazing because he is human and that alone is enough.”

Life-changing scholarship

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Camper learning about how to determine the age of a tree

Isaac and Luis are both recipients of the competitive Gates Millennium Scholarship, which rewards 2 percent of applicants with five years of financial assistance for college. Mario says that Isaac and Luis are two of 10 camp counselors who have received the scholarship in the past nine years.

“It’s an opportunity of a lifetime to receive this scholarship,” Luis says. “This scholarship is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and has helped 20,000 students nationwide. After the initial five years, you can also get graduate school funded depending on your career choice. This year, there were 53,000 applicants, and they chose 1,000. To be selected is surreal. It’s like a dream I still haven’t woken up to.”

“Words cannot describe what this scholarship means to me,” Isaac says. “At 14, I told my mom that I knew how I was going to get to college. ‘I have a plan,’ I told her. My plan was to have someone else pay for it, and three years later that became reality when I received this award. I worked very hard and gave up a lot of things in high school to put myself among the top applicants.

“The camps created a growth mindset in me, and I saw no limits. I was going to work hard to have somebody invest in my education. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the scholarship. Not a day where I don’t think to myself, ‘There are 19,000 applicants that did not receive this award, and would they be working harder than I am today if they did?’” 

Giving back comes full circle

Isaac and Luis are not the only young adults who have turned their camp experiences into something larger. Two OSU students who were once campers are now working with Mario and using their personal experiences with the camps to assist with 4-H youth development programs.

4-H Youth Development Education Program Assistant Olivia Guillen was a camper while she was in the fourth grade and became a camp counselor while she was in high school. She is now 18 and will begin classes at Oregon State.

“I didn’t think I would be a good counselor because I was a shy and passive person,” Olivia says. “After the first year of being a counselor, I completely changed. I started to get involved with school and got out of my comfort zone more. I was a counselor in the camps in high school, then a volunteer and now I work here.”

Although she wasn’t a camper, Isamar Chavez began volunteering as a counselor with 4-H in 2014. Now she’s an intern with Mario, and will begin her second year at OSU this fall. Isamar didn’t know about the 4-H program while she was younger, but learned about it through another volunteer while she was attending community college. She decided to volunteer and continued going back because she liked being part of the environment.

“Seeing the chain of role models Mario talks about provided me with a sense of empowerment and made me think maybe I could be the first in my family to go to college,” Isamar says. “I just completed my first year at Oregon State, and now I have an internship, which I’m grateful for because I have a part in something impactful for students. I am very conscious of how I can be there for students who were in a similar situation and who need opportunities, inspiration and a sense of community.”

More information about the 4-H camps and financial assistance can be found here.