Parent counselor shares his experience of a week at Camp KEEP Ocean — a jewel in local education programs
By Rob Meszaros
Nestled below towering eucalyptus trees just off the sand dunes on California’s central coast lies a pretty amazing place. It’s called Camp KEEP (Kern Environmental Education Program), and for five days in early February, it was my home away from home.
For more than 45 years, KEEP has offered residential outdoor science schools at various locations under the direction of the Kern County Superintendent of Schools office. The original campus was located in Tehachapi Mountain Park. Today, two campuses are being operated — KEEP Ocean in Montana de Oro State Park, just south of Morro Bay, and its sister campus in nearby Cambria. Each year, nearly 7,000 fifth and six-graders visit with their schools.
As a volunteer counselor for my daughter’s six-grade class, my assignment seemed straightforward enough — keep a group of 11- and 12-year-old boys safe, happy and out of mischief. It was a task that took me out of my comfort zone and it proved to be even harder than I imagined. I was on duty for 23 hours a day. My only reprieve was for an hour before dinnertime. It was just enough time to grab a shower, a diet soda and a quick phone call home.
As it turns out, tween boys are rowdy. They’re crass. They’re impressionable. And they fart a lot — on each other — and think it’s the funniest thing ever. How did I not remember any of this from when I was their age?
My bunkmates really tested me on night one. I even had to call for back up — twice.
What had I gotten myself into? I had to remind myself that the experience wasn’t about me. The week’s adventure was about the kids, many whom had never been away from their parents for any length of time, or hiked to the top of a mountain, held a snake or even seen the ocean before. As I dozed off that night, I re-committed to being the best role model I could be for the students.
Each morning began with the sounding of nature’s alarm clock. The deep bellow of breath through a conch shell reverberated across camp at 7 a.m. Then it was off to breakfast in a large, white dome that is the centerpiece of campus. The dome is where everyone gathers for community meals and various other activities throughout the week. The newest addition is a touch tank funded by Chevron, which had just been filled with water and sea creatures during our visit.
Among the highlights of breakfast — besides the coffee that’s available for counselors — was the awarding of the highly-coveted Cabin of the Day, which was presented each morning to the cabin that was deemed by KEEP staff to have been the quietest and cleanest. My boys were disqualified for the first contest because of their loud antics the night before, but they did turn things around and take the prize later in the week.
Most of our time was spent out on the trails surrounding campus. This is where the program really shines thanks to KEEP’s naturalists who led us on six separate hikes over three days to tide pools, sandy beaches, mountains, creeks, sand dunes and the Morro Bay National Estuary.
The naturalists are absolute pros. They aren’t only great science teachers; they are great with the kids. Each is engaging in his or her own way, stopping along the way to explain things succinctly to their young audience, telling stories about the Chumash who were native to the area or leading hands-on science activities about the ecosystems and life cycles the students had been learning about in textbooks back at school.
KEEP is more than just learning about the world around us and ways to conserve so our “great blue marble” is preserved for future generations. It’s also about camaraderie, little life lessons and is a great opportunity for making lifelong memories. This was what the evening program was all about — great meals together, science games under the stars, a scavenger hunt and free time when students could partake in Ping-Pong, basketball, volleyball and other fun and games.
The schedule at KEEP is finely oiled; everything is so well orchestrated with each meal, day hike and activity flowing seamlessly together. There is never any down time and not once did I hear a student say: “I’m bored” or “I want to get home to play video games.” It was refreshing.
Each evening culminates with everyone gathering around a blazing campfire for an hour of songs and storytelling. There is something oddly special about 90 kids dancing and singing quirky songs about poop in harmony. “It starts with an S and ends with a T, it comes out of you and it comes out of me, I know what you’re thinking but don’t call it that, be scientific and call it SCAT. It was a piece of what? A piece of SCAT!”
But my favorite was “Live oak, live oak, ooh baby let your xylem flow. Yeah, yeah, yeah…” to the tune of Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie.” These songs and a dozen others are still stuck in my head a month later.
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. The first night might have been rough, but my cabin group proved to be made up of the nicest, most polite and fun boys I could have asked for. At one point during the week, one of them came to me unprovoked and thanked me for being there for them.
When I arrived back home to Bakersfield, dirty and tired, my third-grade son was concerned that I wouldn’t want to visit again with his class in three years. No need to worry, Luke, I’ll be back.