DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER: Vote Yes on 99
For nearly two years in my late 20s, I worked as an attorney in the juvenile courts for the State of California. It was heartbreaking work.
Most of the work was helping set policies and looking into ways that the courts could be help teenagers, but one day each week, I worked at the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland—and was on the frontlines with kids from the toughest neighborhoods of Oakland. Nine out of ten of the teenagers were good kids in bad situations, but by the time most of them cycled into the court system, whether as a dependent looking for placement in a foster home or a delinquent waiting for sentencing, the narrative already seemed set. They needed something to bump them from that path towards dropping out of school, low paying jobs or jail. Frustrated that the California system at the time offered few options to bump them from this path and towards a more positive future, I decided I would set up my own program: A rowing team for nonviolent teenager offenders. Instead of being sentenced to juvenile hall, they had the option to join the team which trained on a lake adjacent to the courthouse. The goal was to provide a sense of discipline, teamwork and belonging—and although we only worked with a small number of teens, more than half ended up in college and, ultimately, employed.
Even so, after nearly two years being discouraged by what little I felt as if I could do, I decided to get back into journalism. Before law school, I had worked as an environmental reporter for San Francisco Weekly and, during law school at the University of Oregon, had written a number of crime stories. To re-enter journalism, I set up a freelance assignment with Eugene Weekly to cover a “wilderness therapy” organization.
It was amazing, and a redeeming experience. Ultimately, the headline that ran on the cover was, “can the wilderness save our children?,” and my article showed that, yes, it can.
For the story, I traveled to southern Oregon where I rendezvoused with a small group of teenagers and their counselors. They were heading into the Kalmiopsis Wilderness for a three-week long backcountry trip, which included a three day solo when each teenager had to set up his or her own camp and survive on his or her own skills. These were truly life changing skills and confidence that many of the teens picked up while out there.
Even before Henry David Thoreau went to the woods to live deliberately, the idea that nature can be a healing force is well established. There is an honesty to dealing with elements from cold to rain to sun, and the confidence gained and self-reliance recognized are fundamental attitudes to carry into daily life, not just backcountry camping.
On the trip that I covered for Eugene Weekly, there was a teenager who had brought a gun to school, and another who was spiraling into drug use and another who was just a bit too wild for his suburban parents to figure out. By and large, they were truly wonderful kids, but needed to change the framework of their lives—and a three week wilderness did that for them.
Although this may be a dramatic example about how the wilderness can save our teens, there is plenty of empirical data about the value of outdoor schools and education—and plenty of examples and statics and individual stories around to support those claims. In Central Oregon, a camp called Caldera hosts hundreds of kids from low-income neighborhoods in Oregon, neighborhoods where graduation rates are around 50 percent. The camp provides these youth with fun, hands-on learning—and the results? About 98 percent graduation rates for the students attending!
Medford and Grants Pass are facing some of the worst graduation rates in the country. Whatever tools available to help one or 1000 of these students find the skills and confidence should be used.
VOTE YES ON 99.
If passed this election, Measure 99 will provide funding to send every middle-school student in Oregon to a week of Outdoor School. This isn’t a tax measure, but takes funds from the State Lottery.
Really, what is there to lose?