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Effort to send kids who survived wildfires to summer camp

The camping experience won’t be possible without donations from people and businesses in the community.
Credit: Family YMCA of Marion & Polk Counties
Family YMCA of Marion & Polk Counties

SALEM, Ore. — There’s an important effort underway to help kids who lost their homes or were affected by the wildfires last year. The idea: raise money in order to give kids an opportunity to have some fun at summer camp.

In the Santiam Canyon, progress is slow, but it’s progress.

“Slowly working out of the emergency phase of this disaster and going into the long-term recovery," said Detroit mayor Jim Trett. "We have people that are moving back into town. Now we have some kids back up here."

Many homes and businesses in the city were destroyed last summer in the fire. It’s left a mark, not only physically but mentally for families and kids who lived in the area. To help with the trauma, there’s an effort to send kids to camp who were affected by any of the wildfires in Oregon. The hope is to help rekindle their joy. 

Trett is very familiar with Camp Silver Creek after having been a camper and counselor there.

“Camp Silver Creek has a special place in my heart,” said Trett.

“When the [Camp Silver Creek] Alumni Association called me and said this was a project they were undertaking to send kids from the canyon to camp, it was immediately overwhelming,” he said.

Tamera O’Connor is a part of the Camp Silver Creek Alumni Association which spearheaded the “Canyon Campers” idea. She said the group started talking about doing something to help fire-affected kids about a month ago.

“We just kind of started rolling with it,” O’Connor said.

Then the association got the Family YMCA of Marion and Polk Counties involved, which runs Camp Silver Creek. When Tim Sinatra, CEO of the Family YMCA of Marion and Polk Counties heard about the plan, he was immediately on board.

“Let the children and families know we’re gonna be there with them no matter what,” said Sinatra.

The plan now is for kids to choose where they want to go, a week-long overnight stay at Camp Silver Creek or a day camp experience at Greider Camp.

“We want to make sure the camping experience is emotionally safe, has the considerations of past traumas, potential related triggers,” said Sinatra.

He said staff will be trained to recognize signs of PTSD in kids and there will be a mental health specialist on call 24/7.

In addition, O’Connor said traditional camp-related activities like bonfires are being reviewed as well. Kids who don’t want to be around fire will be able to opt-out and do other activities.

But the experience won’t be possible without help from people and businesses in the community.

O’Connor said it takes about $350 to send a kid to camp for a week. She said they’re hoping to send upwards of 200 kids to camp, although Sinatra said at a minimum they would like to send at least 50-100 kids. Sinatra said if there are more kids registered than anticipated, they will figure out how to accommodate the additional kids.

“We’re looking for businesses to help us with supplies,” said O’Connor.

The supplies would be for kids who lost their homes due to wildfire. Examples of the types of new supplies they’re hoping companies will donate, include things like towels, jackets, swimsuits, or hiking shoes.

At this point, she said the United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley has agreed to donate 100 sleeping bags and flashlights.

They are grateful for the donation but there are still many more camping supplies they need to get for kids who may need them. O’Connor hopes other businesses and organizations step up to help kids affected by wildfire.

Meantime, O’Connor said they’re hoping individuals can donate money to fund the kids’ trip to camp.

“We really want these kids to smile again and know that the future’s great and despite your challenges there’s a lot of people out there that’s gonna step up and provide and let’s start with this summer camp experience,” said Sinatra.

If you want to help, it’s easy. Just go to www.theyonline.org and you can donate or be a business sponsor. Any fire-affected families, whether from the Santiam Canyon or elsewhere in Oregon, can also now register their child for summer camp at the same website. Camps are scheduled to begin in mid-June.

O’Connor said if a child is located outside of the Willamette Valley and were affected by wildfires, they may still register for summer camp but they would need to have their own transportation to get to and from camp.

“We’ve all dedicated so much time and our hearts are in this because we truly believe this is gonna help those kids affected by the fires,” said O’Connor.