The Kern Environmental Education Program – better known as Camp KEEP – is celebration its 50th anniversary this month.
Since April 1969, KEEP has been a rite of passage for so many young people in our community. In fact, it’s estimated that approximately a quarter-million students have benefited from the program over the years.
I had an opportunity to visit KEEP as a counselor with my son and his Stockdale Elementary schoolmates in early February. What an experience!
Here, the classrooms have no walls and instead of book work, there is plenty of footwork exploring the land and life that make up California’s central coast. KEEP’s naturalists led us on two educational hikes per day, packed with engaging, hands-on science lessons. We learned about the various ecosystems and geology on our treks to nearby tide pools, sandy beaches, mountains, creeks, sand dunes and the Morro Bay National Estuary.
There are also lasting social benefits. Students and counselors share the enriching experience of living in cabins together, eating community meals, playing science games by starlight, singing songs around a campfire and falling asleep to the sounds of nature. There are plenty of life lessons to be found as well at KEEP. For many students, it’s the first time they are away from their parents for an extended period. Nothing tests a young person’s independence and confidence more than some time away from their nest.
The schedule at KEEP is finely oiled. Everything is so well orchestrated with each meal, day hike and activity flowing seamlessly together. The kids are highly engaged and it’s exciting to witness the joy that various aspects of the program bring to the students. For some, it’s the first time they have the opportunity to see the ocean, hold a snake or climb to the top of a mountain.
Each evening culminates with everyone gathering around a blazing campfire for an hour of songs and storytelling at KEEP’s amphitheater. Then, it’s lights out.
It was a long, exhausting week, to be sure. But I survived and in hindsight, it will go down as one of the best, most memorable weeks ever. It was transformational on many levels for both the students and me.
If you ever have an opportunity to visit Camp KEEP as a counselor – take it! In the meantime, to learn more about Camp KEEP and its rich 50-year history, visit www.campkeep.org/50years.
— Opinions expressed in this column are those of Rob Meszaros.