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Evolution and Impact: Camp experiences GREAT growth

Written by Ms. Clare Jensen
Tacoma Weekly
Used with permission

Camp:photo by Shannon Wilson

Puyallup tribal youth and students from Chief Leschi School (CLS) spent three weeks at the summer G.R.E.A.T. camp, participating in a variety of healthy and positive activities.

Three years ago, the tribe owned a parcel of land along Lake Kapowsin that more or less sat vacant, with a small house, an old tennis court, and a stone gazebo.

Today, those 300 acres of land have morphed into a hotbed of activity for youth who have taken over that area and made it more or less their home.

The tribe’s Gang Resistance Education And Training (G.R.E.A.T.) Program has turned the property into a place for its summer camp and weekend getaways—a place where youth build positive relationships, self-confidence, and their own camp cabins.

In five years, the CLS G.R.E.A.T. summer program has gone from 17 students at a “kickball day camp” at the school’s campus to 40 students sleeping sardine-style in the small house at Lake Kapowsin for a week, to 150 kids at a three-week summer session, occupying newly built camp cabins, showers, and an outdoor kitchen that the G.R.E.A.T. team constructed themselves throughout the school year.

“We have evolved from that original group of kids,” said Officer Allan Gerking of Puyallup Tribal Police Department, who spearheaded the G.R.E.A.T. Program at CLS in 2004. He has seen his students evolve with the camp—most students return to the camp each year, and several have come back to work as camp counselors for the youth.

Three of the G.R.E.A.T. camp counselors, Kyle Burrill, Josh Kelso, and Chad Walden, have all moved on from CLS but have been with the G.R.E.A.T. camp since day one. These counselors are examples of what is possible through the positive connections, activities, and education the G.R.E.A.T. curriculum and camp provide. All three of those counselors graduated from CLS to move into local colleges, staying clean and out of trouble, and are now active, contributing members of their community. “They stayed out of trouble,” said Shannon Wilson, athletics instructor and counselor for the G.R.E.A.T. sports camp. “The kids see that.”

One concept behind gang resistance is providing a strong connection to something positive for youth who may otherwise be lured into gang environments because of a lack of belonging, support, or sense of personal identity. Positive role models in adults—such as Allan Gerking, mentors, counselors, and peers—are the connections and relationships the campers start to make while at Kapowsin. These connections, relationships, and positive ideas are continued throughout the school year because Allan Gerking and many of the counselors see the youth each day at school.

"We're watching these kids grow…into the person they want to be—we’re just helping them out," Chad Walden said.

At G.R.E.A.T. camp, students are able to participate in activities they might not ordinarily get to do, connect with their peers in a positive way, and see examples of successful people who have come from a similar background and who have avoided negative lifestyles, like gangs.

While at G.R.E.A.T. camp, students are involved, out of trouble, and off the streets.

“We feed them, we love on them, and they’re getting experiences they wouldn’t normally get,” Shannon Wilson said. “We’re kind of trying to foster our own gang (at G.R.E.A.T. camp), but it’s a positive one.”

Shirley LaPointe has been working at CLS for 17 years. For the past several years, she has monitored the campus security cameras. She is also the sole chef at G.R.E.A.T. summer camp and weekend getaways, which means she cooks several hundred meals a day for hungry, growing youth. She noted the change she has seen in the students at her school since the G.R.E.A.T. curriculum has been implemented.

"Six or seven years ago, there was a lot more gang activity, but you just don’t see it in the school as much anymore,” she said. “It’s really made a big difference in [the students’] attitudes. When they get to the middle school/high school level, they’re not trying to prove themselves as much—they’re just kids going to school.”

This year’s G.R.E.A.T. camp ran for three weeks, ending July 24. Seventh- through twelfth-graders participated in the cabin camp or the intensive sports camp for the full three weeks, while fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade students filtered in and out for one-week sessions. During that time, they were able to swim, fish, and canoe in the lake, absorb Twulshootseed language through daily classes, and spend time each day doing community service.

All campers are Puyallup tribal members or students at CLS.

During the school year, the camp is open for one weekend a month for students to get away, have fun, and work hard. Over the last three school years, students, counselors, community volunteers, and Allan Gerking have built five 5-bunk cabins, shower stalls, a larger kitchen for Shirley LaPointe, and a floating dock to make water usage more convenient.

"It’s been a group effort by so many people," said the modest Allan Gerking, who has a true dedication to the students and the camp, which is obvious when speaking to him and his peers.

"A lot of kids say they come here and it feels like home to them," he said. "And it is like a home—for a lot of us. I don’t know of many other camps that are like that."

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