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After wildfires destroyed property, camp for Oregonians with disabilities is back on this summer

Campers returned to Upward Bound Camp in the Santiam Canyon last week.

GATES, Ore. — Last September's historic wildfires destroyed Upward Bound, a camp for Oregonians with disabilities. 

Flames wiped out almost all of the old Gates Elementary School property where camp is held. As the cleanup and recovery dragged on, they worried camp wouldn't happen this summer. 

Finally, last week, campers returned to their haven in the Santiam Canyon to experience an overwhelming feeling of joy that they waited 10 long months for.

Where mounds of melted metal and debris sat for months collecting rust, there's now a fresh slate; from the ashes they rise.

"It's special because of all the animals," long-time camper Jorge Crisantos said. "Upward Bound Camp is the place to be because you can have fun here. You can play games and you can do activities."

"I just like everything because we talk about God and the Bible," first-time camper Jonathan Jensen said. "I like being outside and not being in the city necessarily as much. Just being able to get out of town and being able to meet new people or adults at camp."

It's a place they needed even more this year, with the pandemic cutting off their outlets for recreation and socialization.

"We were all isolated for a long time but people with disabilities were more so," Upward Bound Executive Director Diane Turnbull said.

For months Turnbull fought for the ash, debris and trees to get cleaned up. Camp this summer depended on it. They were at the mercy of Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) crews, contracted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and their timeline.

"It got nervous-making there for a while when they were starting to communicate with us and we didn't see them, didn't see them," Turnbull said.

Finally, in late May, contractors showed up and hauled everything off over the course of two weeks. Around that same time the Oregon Department of Human Services (Oregon DHS) gave the camp the green light under easing COVID-19 rules.

"It just came together in this really beautiful way," Turnbull told KGW, "Then we went into high gear trying to figure out how are we going to do this, what do we need to do?"

Along the way people and organizations pitched in to help with the recovery.

Flames burned the bunks down; money was donated to buy tents. Common areas were leveled; a local landscape company laid down grass for a meadow, a place campers now love.

"It wasn't that everything was easy but it was definitely that everything was possible," Turnbull said. "Now they're here! Oh my gosh, I'm so happy!"

The sounds of heavy machinery have been replaced by the buzz of chatter and sights of campers enjoying nature, sharing meals and even holding talent shows.

"The opportunity to watch campers share their gifts and their talents and enjoy gifts and talents of other people - that's what camp is about," Turnbull said.

Friendships are made and re-kindled for a week in the mountains.

"Makes me feel energized to tell other people what I went through," Jensen said.

Reminders of the devastation from the fires can be seen all over the property. But so can symbols of revival and that's what the Upward Bound family chooses to see.

More KGW wildfire coverage: