Reconnecting to Nature and Each Other at Summer Camp

by Tara Lemezis, Education Administrator & Marketing Liaison, and Emily Pinkowitz, Director of Education

On the morning of June 27, 69 children and their families peeled into Portland Audubon’s Forest Park Sanctuary, filling our parking lots, buildings, and trails with laughter and chatter. It was the first day of a full camp season since 2019. After a canceled program in 2020 and a much condensed season in 2021, we were gearing up to navigate through 60+ camps traveling throughout our forests, throughout the metro region, and as far afield as the San Juan Islands and California.

Large group of summer campers in front of downed Redwood tree
Redwoods Summer Camp, photo by Abby VanLeuven.

Our staff was excited, curious, and a bit trepidatious to meet them. After all that children had been through over the last two years, our team wondered what each child was bringing with them to camp. Would they need extra coaching to connect with one another? Extra active time to burn through long pent-up energy? Extra space to adjust or process emotions?

The answer was yes AND. Yes, some children needed a bit more support, a bit longer to adjust, a bit more freedom to roam. AND, when they found their footing, the connection, learning, and growth that they built at camp was moving to witness.

We watched as a group of 6th-8th graders moved from awkward distance to story sharing, bonding, and even flute playing(!) amid groves of 2,000-year-old redwoods. We celebrated as a child picked up his very first crawdad from Balch Creek while his entire camp cheered him on. And we silently cheered when another child on the autism spectrum went from fear of water skippers to catching seven in one day. We pushed our growing edges along with children, hiking trails at greenspaces from Dabney State Park to Trillium Lake and backpacking through the Goat Rocks Wilderness. We helped children move from anxiety to silliness to, finally, sleep on their very first night away from home.

This connection has been reflected in the feedback we’ve received. For long-time Portland Audubon families, this year was a homecoming. One parent shared, “We have been coming to Audubon for years and my kids love the sanctuary and feel a connection to it. It is a true treasure for Portland and for our family! When I gave my child a choice for camps this year, they chose Audubon because of that connection.” So many camp families returned to greet old friends who were two inches taller and two years wiser.

Portland Audubon Redwoods Summer Camp, photo by Abby VanLeuven.

At the same time, this connection was shared by new families as well. One noted, “I’m sure my kids learned a lot about nature, but more than that, I think the social aspects this camp focused on (teamwork, kindness, etc.) really had an impact on them.” Another concurred, “My kids had a fantastic time! They came home happy and with a sense of confidence about them… They also spoke often of the friendships they were making, which can be a challenge for them.”

We were grateful to welcome so many new families as a result of our new sliding scale model. Many families called this out as a reason they were able to come to camp. One parent noted, “Sliding scale was a major decision factor on top of the fact that we already knew the excellent quality of the camp.” Another shared, “We love nature camps, but as a recently single mother, I thought I wouldn’t have the money for any camps. The pay-what-you-can was instrumental in both of my children being able to go to Audubon. Thank you so much!” We’re grateful to the Spencer Higgins Education Fund for making this sliding scale possible in perpetuity. If you’d like to contribute to the Spencer Higgins Education Fund to support sliding scale programs, click here.

1st and 2nd grade campers making funny faces in the forest
Portland Audubon Summer Camp, photo by Tara Lemezis.

Sliding scale also meant many campers were able to join us week after week. Thirty percent of families came for more than two weeks of camp—a significant shift from past years. This meant more time to deepen their relationship to our forests and to Portland Audubon’s mission to inspire all people to love and protect birds, wildlife, and the natural environment.

Educators taught campers about native plants and animals, Leave No Trace principles in the wilderness, and the complex ecosystem that connects water, plants, animals, and humans across our city and across the region. One parent shared, “Instead of learning one specific thing, what I noticed instead is that the camp really ignited his curiosity of plants AND animals. We had fantastic conversations each night after camp.” Another shared, “The wildlife education piece was important; there are a lot of outdoor camps, and a lot of educational camps, but I wanted her to learn more about nature.”

Portland Audubon Archery Summer Camp, photo by Tara Lemezis.

No matter which camp children joined this summer, they developed connections—to nature, to themselves, and to each other. Eight hundred children joined us for 10 adventurous and joyful weeks, sparking a relationship that we hope will last for years to come. Through teamwork and laughter, through nature-based art, through science investigations, through self-reliance in the outdoors, we grew together and reveled in the simplicity of a summer outside.

The last few years have been challenging for many of us, especially kids. Summer camp gave children a chance to reconnect with others and the outdoors in a safe, supportive, educational, and exploratory way. Along with the many intellectual, physical, and mental health benefits, we know that our camps are where so many kids plug in and access a new community. Enormous gratitude is owed to our Portland Audubon families, camp staff, and the natural world for teaching campers that they too are an important part of nature. Thanks for another memorable summer camp season!

Small group of 1st and 2nd grade summer campers walking through sanctuary
Portland Audubon Summer Camp, photo by Tara Lemezis.