Oregon summer camp communicates God's love through nature, friendships

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Upward Bound

By Katie Scott

PORTLAND, Ore. (CNS) — On the North
Santiam River east of Salem, Oregon, campers reel in wriggly fish, rally
courage for talent-show skits and belt out tunes in evening singalongs.

It’s the classic hodgepodge of
activities that countless children enjoy each summer. But for participants of Upward Bound, a
Christian-based camp for people with physical and cognitive disabilities, the
days not only bring laughs, exhaustion and friendships, they also help campers experience
God’s love.

“We keep our philosophy simple,”
Laura Pierce, Upward Bound
executive director, told the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the
Archdiocese of Portland. “It is our mission to communicate God’s love
through providing quality care and experiencing the wonders of nature

The 40-year-old camp is not
affiliated with any denomination and welcomes everyone. Many Catholics help, including
students from Portland’s Jesuit
and Central Catholic
high schools who volunteer each summer. Annually serving around 700 campers,
ages 12 and older, Upward Bound draws participants from across the country.

“I see it as a pro-life
organization, where people are being served who are often rejected by
society,” said Aaron
Thompson, Upward Bound board chairman and a parishioner of St. Juan Diego Parish in Portland.

Individuals with disabilities often
are without a religious affiliation, according to Pierce. Reasons can include a
lack of church-based programs that meet their needs and congregations’
discomfort with the mannerisms, movements or noises people with disabilities
sometimes make.

“We are blessed to have an
opportunity to make an impact on campers but also families, who are often
isolated from a community of believers,” Pierce said. “We help give
them hope and support to keep on keeping on.”

Kelsey Rea, coordinator of the Archdiocese of Portland’s
Office for People with Disabilities, agrees. Although there are several
adapted Masses for the special needs community in the archdiocese, the camp is
“a great way for families to connect and network in a faith
environment,” she said.

Amid swimming, paddle boating,
dances and other traditional camp activities — adapted as needed — staff and
volunteers share Bible stories and invite prayers each night. Staff teach campers
the basics of prayer, but “they seem to know intuitively how to pray,”
Pierce said. “One will stand up and say, ‘Yay, God! Thank you for the
food.’ Another will pray for 10 minutes.” Each camper can connect with the
divine in his or her own way, she said.

Nature can be a powerful, tangible
way to know Jesus, Thompson said.

“Outside of the Eucharist and
the liturgy, creation is the closest we get to God, in my mind,” he said. “Even
in the liturgy God can be abstract for some individuals with disabilities. But
nature speaks to everyone; anyone can find joy in jumping into cool water,
listening to birds singing.”

Pierce said along with feeling God’s
love, campers learn to realize the gifts they’ve been given and to share them
while cultivating friendships.

“It’s a chance for them to be
with others who will listen, friends who will just be silly with them,”
she said.

Camps typically run five days in
June, July and August. Some have a 5 to 1 staff ratio, while daylong sessions
are available for medically fragile campers who need one-on-one assistance. The
menu is catered to campers’ dietary needs, and there is a 24-hour on-site

Holiday-themed camps are offered
throughout the year, and respite-care camps — providing caregivers a day to
recharge — are held on an as-needed basis.

Pierce helped found the camp in
1979, and her husband serves as chaplain as well as “pretty much does whatever
is needed,” she said.

People keep coming back to Upward
Bound; there’s a 99 percent return rate.

Among those who continue to return
is Diana Mikolajczak, 61, a member of St. Philip Benizi Parish in Creswell, Oregon, who has attended
every summer for the past 18 years.

The only thing she talks about more
than camp is her birthday, said her sister, Donna Silva. “The campers are
treated as family,” Silva said.

Pierce recalled another camper, who
started coming at age 16. The boy has cerebral palsy and communicates by using
one finger to type.

Before Upward Bound, the boy’s
mother told Pierce, every day during the summer he’d sit by his front window
and watch the neighborhood kids walking past on their way to play ball. “He
wanted them to ask if he’d like to go along, even if he couldn’t play, or ask
him to come over for milk and cookies,” Pierce said.

Upward Bound is about “being
connected, being part of a community where people like this boy can come to,”
she said. “It’s about never feeling like you are a window-sitter.”

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Note: More information about Upward Bound is online at www.upwardboundcamp.org.

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Scott is special projects reporter at the
Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.

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