Lynne Haley used to occasionally imagine herself standing up in a crowded Bakersfield restaurant and shouting, "Raise your hand if you've ever been to Camp KEEP!"
The place would stop. A hundred forks would clatter onto a hundred plates and a hundred arms would shoot into the air. And a hundred smiles would crease a hundred faces.
Haley, who worked for the Kern Environmental Education Program, or Camp KEEP, for 35 years starting the year after its 1969 founding, never got around to conducting that restaurant survey.
She really wanted to. Not being able to adequately gauge KEEP's impact on students over the years is a lingering regret from her time in the program, an intensive, five-day earth science course that the Kern County Superintendent of Schools will have operated for 50 years this spring.
"You don't see them again after that Friday when they all go home," she said. "So there's no real measurement as to whether you did any good or not. You just enjoy the ride and hope they got something out of it."
Steve Schubert knows the feeling.
"That is one of my frustrations," said Schubert, a 29-year KEEP veteran who still works part-time in the program. "You meet students every week, you make new connections, and then they're gone and you usually never see them again. So it's always a question on our minds: How did this impact them? We hope it's an experience they'll never forget."
Based on the sheer numbers, Camp KEEP must surely have made some meaningful impressions over the years: 250,000 fifth- and (mostly) sixth-graders, the vast majority of them now adults, have gone through the program in its half-century of existence, according to a KCSOS estimate. The chance that a Bakersfield native, or a parent who helped raise a Bakersfield native, has in some way participated in the KEEP experience is quite good: Just about every elementary school in greater Bakersfield, and in many cases well beyond, sends its students.
The first Camp KEEP, modeled after a Springville program operated by Tulare County schools called Scicon (for School of Science and Conservation), opened in spring 1969 at Tehachapi Mountain Park and Camp Condor near Pine Mountain Club. In spring 1971, the program moved to Hart Flat.
That fall, the program moved again to San Luis Obispo County with the creation of KEEP Ocean in Montaña de Oro State Park. The following year KEEP Ocean moved from its temporary spot in Hazard Canyon down the road to the place in Montaña de Oro most people think of when they look back on their Camp KEEP experience. A second campus, KEEP Sierra, operated 1987-2003, and a third, KEEP Cambria, operated 1992-2018. The newest campus, KEEP By the Sea, opened in Arroyo Grande in August 2018, replacing KEEP Cambria. Now it's just those two sites: KEEP Ocean, near Los Osos, and KEEP By the Sea.
Ellalina Emrich Keller, director of By the Sea, led KEEP Foundation board members Ursula Ripley, Steve Grove and Jerry Caneta on a Thursday tour of the new digs, a 29-acre former United Methodist Church camp where the KCSOS has already made dramatic additions and renovations for its Arroyo Grande landlords. Elizabeth Roberts, director of Camp KEEP Ocean, tagged along for the tour.
The Kern superintendent's office, Emrich Keller said, has been phenomenally supportive.
"Every time Elizabeth and I go over to Kern, we feel like rock stars," she said. "Everybody there really loves Camp KEEP."
Last week 100 campers from Stockdale Elementary were at KEEP Ocean, whale-watching along the high dunes of Montaña de Oro; gazing up at hawks and falcons engaging in high-altitude intimidation games around Morro Rock; listening to Chumash-tribe appreciation lectures along the gently sloping trails of the chaparral; tide-pool gazing where the surf meets the jagged shoreline; and flopping onto their bellies along the wooden docks in Morro Bay to look down at the starfish and sea anemones that adults walk right past on their way to seafood restaurants.
Meanwhile, 100 campers from Dolores "Dee" Whitley School, the Panama-Buena Vista School District's newest campus, and Trona Elementary, in the east Kern desert, were at KEEP By the Sea, studying wildlife, both large and microscopic, and taking nature walks to beaches, tide pools, creeks and forests. Naturalist John "Buffalo" Sanders was leading an FBI investigation (that's Fungus, Bacteria and Invertebrates) into the science of decomposition. Students sprawled on the floor of an old, barn-red dome at the center of the camp, called The Nest, to listen to him. "What do these molecules have in common?," he asked. "They were all living at one time," a student responded. "Say something more about that," Buffalo said, his voice booming, the path toward discovery having widened.
Things have changed over the years for both students and staff members, but the important things have stayed the same. The staff members don't have to sleep in tents anymore, and paychecks come with regularity.
"The campus looks different," Schubert said. "Compared to the days of the old sleeping trailers on wheels (for the campers), it has come a long way. The kids are more tech savvy now, far more into electronics.
"But they're still the same in terms of their wonderment, their joy about being by the ocean," he said. "They're still captivated by the mountains and trees and nature."
He, along with his colleagues, hope that sense of wonder never completely goes away, whatever their professions might turn out to be.
"Hopefully they maintain that curiosity as they get older," he said. "They don't have to be professional scientists or biologists, as long as they maintain an appreciation for nature."
He has seen evidence — precious little, but evidence just the same — that the lessons stick.
"You run into them (as adults)," he said. "Sometimes they're back hiking on the beach at Montaña de Oro. Sometimes they bring their families. Sometimes they see a group of kids out there hiking around and they know it's KEEP. Sometimes they remember the actual person (from the KEEP staff) and they stop and talk about how it impacted their lives."
Haley has experienced that, too, but knows she would have experienced it much more often had she lived in Bakersfield.
She'll have an occasional lunch with now-retired Stockdale Elementary teacher Kathy Jackson, one of the great champions of the KEEP program, and hear about how the students have changed — sometimes dramatically, sometimes almost imperceptibly. KEEP's naturalists rarely get to see kids blossom in that way, beyond those few days of observation.
But they do see the promise.
"To see a kids' eyes light up, to see that connection," she said. "That makes it worthwhile.
"But I just always loved being outside and hanging out with kids. We always felt, in the early days, and even in my later years there, it was more of a passion than a job. Keeping every kid that came to camp safe, giving them a good week that they'll remember the rest of their lives — that was my reward."
Former Camp KEEP kids between the ages of 11 and 61 should know that those camp naturalists — whose names they may have forgotten — sincerely hope they had an impact on campers' lives. The campers certainly had an impact on theirs.