Imagine a classroom nestled deep in the forest, where snowflakes dance from the clouds to form a thick, white blanket on every tree and rooftop. The area is peaceful; there are no cell phones, no bells, and not even a single car—just a few cabins scattered along the shore of a beautiful frozen lake. In Central Oregon, there is only one organization that offers this unique learning experience, and it is Camp Tamarack.
Camp Tamarack’s Winter Wellness program brings local youth to learn and explore in the Deschutes National Forest. For 3-4 days, students get to escape the stress and pressures of traditional school and learn leadership skills, community wellness, identity formation, and positive self-esteem. With snowshoes strapped to their feet, they trek into the wilderness for a life-shaping adventure. During their time at Camp Tamarack, they will eat meals together, do chores together, and learn more about one other and themselves.
This year, Camp Tamarack was able to sponsor 60 7th grade students from Jefferson County Middle School to participate in its Winter Wellness program at no cost. This opportunity was made possible by Youth Engagement Strategy (YES) funds from the Pacific Northwest region of the U.S. Forest Service as part of a regional initiative to connect underserved youth to public lands through conservation education, service projects, and career pathway guidance.
“Middle school is such a pivotal time,” said Abigail “Orion” Clark, Health Director at Camp Tamarack. “We focus on giving kids the tools they need to handle their emotions, express themselves, and understand empathy. Having this shared community experience really sets the tone going back into school. It allows them to open up and develop into more well-rounded humans.”
Getting kids away from technology and giving them the chance to connect with nature is very important to Camp Director Lauren “Otter” Rodgers, who has been at Camp Tamarack since 2014. Otter has worked hard over the past five years to help create outdoor curriculum that promotes understanding, empathy, and self-reflection.
“We want kids to know that they are not alone in their struggles and their challenges,” said Otter. “I think that’s what a lot of kids think—that they’re the only one having a hard time, or the only one being bullied or isolated in their friend group. We want kids to realize: Your experiences in life might be unique to you, but you all have something that is going on inside your heart, and you’re not alone. This is a safe space.”
When asked about her experience at Camp Tamarack, 7th grader Makayla Ballard said, “I like that you can be honest here and tell people the things that you feel.”
Daemeon Lowery, also in 7th grade, added, “It is a place where you can get along with other people that you don’t get along with at school. During ‘Wolf Pack’ time they give you a string and you have to go into a group with other people that have the same color string. So you are forced to leave your normal friend group and there are no judgments.”
Camp Tamarack offers programs for 5th graders and middle schoolers, as well as volunteer opportunities for high schoolers.
“It is really important for them to keep coming back,” said Orion. “It helps to reinforce that idea of Camp Tamarack being a safe space that accepts and values everyone.”
Jose “Rio” Rojas, senior at Redmond Proficiency Academy has volunteered at Camp Tamarack for three years.
“This is the place where I realized that I want to be a teacher,” said Rio. “I had never seen college as an option for me until I came to volunteer at Camp Tamarack. People were telling me, ‘You would be a great teacher, and it’s actually possible to go to college—you have the dedication and the passion.’ Now I’m choosing between Western Oregon University and Southern Oregon University to get my Bachelor’s in elementary education.”
When asked about the most rewarding part of her job as a field instructor, Sarah “Raaaaaa” Ward said, “There have been so many times when a kid tells me that because of their experience here, they look at life differently. Just hearing that I’ve made an impact in someone’s life—made them want to go outside more, be more curious, explore more—that feels really significant. I really love that.”
Looking ahead, Otter hopes that Camp Tamarack will find ways to reach even more students and make a bigger impact in the Central Oregon community. This year, 60 7th graders from Jefferson County Middle School were able to attend the Winter Wellness program, but eventually, Otter would like to welcome the entire 7th grade class.
“We are our biggest critics,” said Otter. “Every year we review our programs to see how we can make them better and more inclusive. Unlike a lot of camps, we have tons of flexibility to be creative, and we are continually striving to come up with programs that are innovative and intentional.”