The city of Hillsboro extended a helping hand to one of its most vulnerable populations this summer with a nature-and-art-inspired day camp for children experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity.
Camp Eagle is a two-day event that connects children aged 7 to 12 with the natural world.
Day one was spent at the Riverhouse in Hillsboro's 59-acre Rood Bridge Park, where the Tualatin River feeds into a large pond. The kids embarked on a scavenger hunt for natural features such as leaves and bugs.
Staff from Adventures Without Limits, a nonprofit outdoor organization based in Forest Grove, led a 90-minute science hike where they discussed the power of observation, asking questions and creating hypotheses.
"We looked at things like, 'What is a scientist?' 'What kind of questions do they ask?' 'What do they look at in the world?'" AWL Guide Carrie Morton said. "What I saw this camp providing was a look at what possibilities could be there for them in the future."
Camp Eagle, which stands for "Empowerment Adventure Growth Leadership Experiences," is a place where children don't have to worry about answering questions like "where do you live?" or "what school do you go to?" said Tami Cockeram, the camp's organizer and Hillsboro's community services manager (a new position created in 2016).
"That's the equalizer of this camp... they all know they don't have stable housing and they can talk about it if they want, they don't have to hide it," said Cockeram, who wanted to provide plenty of activities, along with time for kids to just play.
"We really focus on empowering these kids to make choices... we don't want to be too prescriptive with our programming," she said.
The children also received a quick introduction into local politics and civic engagement.
As they arrived at the camp they were greeted by Hillsboro Mayor Steve Callaway and state Rep. Janeen Sollman, a Hillsboro democrat.
Cockeram said the children knew they were about to meet important people.
"The kids came off the van so excited," said Cockeram. "Because of that, they feel important."
Sollman sat down with the children in groups of four and asked them what problems they see their communities facing and asked them to come up with possible solutions.
Cockeram said she watched the kids transform from rambunctious to focused as they recognized an opportunity for their voices to be heard. Each group addressed one of the four major issues — housing, environmental protection, healthcare, and education — without any prompt from adults.
"No matter what age, these kids are amazing, they're resilient, they're watching and listening and completely understand the world around them," Sollman said.
The second day focused on adventure. AWL took the campers kayaking and swimming at Hagg Lake, with games and activities on the shore, including trust-building and team-building exercises.
"For a lot of those kids it was there first time kayaking or being on a boat of any kind — that was really cool to be able to provide access," said Morton.
Cockeram's position was specifically created to find gaps between the city's services and the community's needs and she quickly noticed an important demographic was being left out.
"There's a few camps that focus on kids living in poverty but none that focus on kids living in homelessness," Cockeram said.
Cockeram teamed up with the city manager's office, AWL and the social-service nonprofit Community Action to create the camp last year.
The first camp was less successful, with 29 children signing up but only nine attending the first day.
"The message to us was that these families are living in crisis," said Cockeram. "When your basic needs are not being met, when you don't have stable housing, there's just so many things you can't participate in because things change so quickly."
But after reaching out to shelters across the county and working with volunteers in schools, camp attendance nearly doubled this summer, drawing 16 kids.
Cockeram also realized the kids wouldn't necessarily be equipped for an outdoor-themed camp so she used some city money along with private donations.
Sonrise Church was a major sponsor and Columbia Sportswear provided 52 pairs of shoes in various styles and sizes which volunteers displayed for campers to choose from.
"That was so much fun to watch," said Cockeram.
The children also got to fill their own brand-new backpack with camp supplies - including a hat, t-shirt, school supplies, water canteens and even fidget spinners.
"This is really the community stepping up and saying we want to participate," Cockeram said. "It just allowed us to do so much more with these kids."
"It was incredible to see these students interacting with such fantastic and energetic staff," Sollman told the Hillsboro City Council Aug. 3. "I just wanted to tell you I'm sure you made a difference."
She hopes the camp will expand in the future.
"At the end, every single kid said they wanted this camp to be longer," Morton said. "They had such a good time and they were so bummed it was over. It kind of makes me wonder what the future possibilities are for Camp Eagle."