Happy Campers

Just off the Highway in Brownsville on a small street named ‘Fish Hatchery Road,’ the South Texas brush becomes a little thicker and the road narrows and curves until you come to an imposing gate with a newly painted ‘Camp Rio, Idea Public Schools’ sign.

I park my car and a golf cart approaches from inside the gate driven by a friendly woman wearing camp khakis and hiking boots.

The gate opens and she waves me onto the cart with a smile as her walky-talky comes alive with the sounds of kids laughing and happy banter between camp counselors offering assistance to each other.

“Does anyone need a water jug refill?” “I have a camper who left his hat on the canoe, could you look for it please.” “Roger that, I found a green hat and left it at the archery range for you.” “Omar can you lead the kids in the chant before lunch?” “Ten-four Tanya.”

As Nancy Mance, Camp Rio Director, drives me the half mile into the camp center, she chatters away about nature on the property, the history of this land, the vision of preserving the land and camp and the great experience she has had in her transition from traditional classroom and PE teacher to her role working with kids in this amazing outdoor classroom.

“You get to see kids in another environment, and they experience nature and learning hands on, without all of the constraints and pressure of a traditional school setting. They build comradery in a real way through the camp experience.”

We pull into a clearing alongside a Resaca where kids in bright orange life vests are getting out of canoes with muddy shoes and huge grins on their faces. They are buzzing with laughter and words fly around like “Awesome!” “Did you see us almost tip over?” “That turtle looked right at us!”

We walk past a group of kids doing yoga and others making crafts at a picnic table under shade trees.

A loud chant erupts from another “tribe” in a circle singing and clapping camp songs.

Everyone, including the adults, look thoroughly engaged in the activities and genuinely happy despite the mid-June, mid-day South Texas humidity.

Suffice to say they are literally the “happiest campers” I’ve seen in a long time. Butterflies flit among the humans and bird songs are the background track of the kids’ laughter. I would call it an ‘energetically peaceful’ place. We approach an old building reminiscent of a classic ‘camp dining hall’ of decades past. The screen door squeaks, the ceiling fans buzz and the cement floor is cool and musty.

I am immediately struck with a surge of nostalgia from childhood camp experiences long ago and far away. The memories are real and palpable and I realize that while only a few weeks out of my life, my camp experiences did impact and shape me as a person in many ways, more than all my years of schooling.

“That’s just it”, according to Mance, “Camp and outdoor experiences are shown to have a huge positive impact on kids. Many children don’t have that opportunity, especially here in the Rio Grande Valley. We also know of course research has shown that students who spend time interacting with nature have higher test scores, learn better across disciplines and are able to concentrate more and stay engaged in school.” There are also the obvious health benefits associated with these active, outdoor experiences.

Moises Castillo, recent college graduate and camp guide agrees and gives an example of a kid who participated in the Idea one day camp experience during the school year. “This kid was withdrawn and always inside playing video games, according to his mom.

She came to us after the child’s one day experience and said, ‘What have you done to my son? He is like a different person, always exploring and playing outside and looking for bugs and plants. It was like the experience woke him up and reminded him to be a child and play outside. It’s wonderful!’

That is what has inspired me to work here. I had similar experiences as a Boy Scout. Then I attended then UTB’s Math and Science Academy and fell in love with science. I want to share science through hands on activities in a place where kids want to learn, not just sitting still in a classroom.”

Castillo, who studied physics at UTRGV, introduces physics principles like Newton’s laws and potential energy, by using a canoe paddle and archery bow.

Mance is humble about her role in building and leading the growth of Camp Rio. She defers to the district leadership and her staff.

Yet she casually mentions working many hours in the heat of last summer’s sun, wading into the muddy Resaca to clear out tough, overgrown retana and getting the camp and waterfront ready for the school year of kids.

“We worked hard to get the place ready. We had to do it ourselves because it needed to be done.”

She has carefully chosen her staff according to their skills and they bring a balance of science, outdoor enthusiasm, teaching and curriculum development.

They are working to align their school-year lessons with the TEKS (state education learning guidelines) so this can be fully integrated into the Idea Public School curriculum.

Mance and the district are committed to preserving the majority of the land for generations to come through a conservatioon easement and are working with the Valley Land Trust and current property owners to purchase the 85 acre camp.

But school is out for the summer and the week-long day camp is new this year, offered in several sessions, for a fee.

It is open to all kids (2nd to 5th grade) from any school (not just Idea students). During the school year, most first grader through twelfth graders at Idea Schools up and down the Valley are bussed to the camp for the one-day outdoor education camp.

The vision is to increase the number of days and to eventually provide an overnight experience for the older kids.

But the real testimony is from the campers themselves. Entering 4th grader Mickey Rodriguez of Brownsville shared, “I loved tons of things about camp!

My personal favorite was archery, but a lot of kids would say canoeing and arts and crafts.

We made some chants and some really good friends. Camp challenge was awesome. We had fire and water competitions and obstacle courses. I really liked being outside all day long. It was hot but it was still fun.

The camp and outdoor classroom vision of Idea Public Schools is inspiring in that it goes out of the box and takes some risks for the benefit of the children.

Truly these experiences should be weaved throughout our children’s schooling, as they often are in other countries with the most successful academic outcomes.

I would argue a good part of every school day should be outside, where you can learn first-hand about the world.

This is particularly important for the many kids in our community who are living in stressful situations, facing poverty, or violence, or other stressors.

Our kids don’t need more hours inside a classroom, rather, they need these types of life-changing, life-impacting experiences, and there is research to back this up, because Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!).