CAMAS — The kids at the Jack, Will and Rob Center’s summer camp are allowed to pick how they spend their time. Many spent their Friday afternoon inching away from a king cobra.
Steve Lattanzi, owner of Steve’s Creature Feature, let the kids know their fear was misplaced.
“She’s tame,” he told the 50-plus kids sitting on the gymnasium floor within a few feet of Hannah, the king cobra. “She hasn’t tried to kill me in seven years.”
Hannah was just one of the reptiles Lattanzi brought for his demonstration at the summer camp. Some reptiles the kids couldn’t hold, like Hanna, Annie the anaconda and Gabby the Gaboon viper, who hissed whenever Lattanzi stepped near. He did let the kids hold Bandit, a 15-year-old milk snake, allowing the kids to decide if they’d like to simply hold Bandit or wear the snake like a bracelet, necklace or headband. Then there was Buttercup, the 15-foot Burmese python, who so was big it took at least eight campers to hold her up.
Bringing in a demonstration like this isn’t a common occurrence at the Jack, Will and Rob Center, and it’s something that happened less in the last year then in previous years. Prior to the start of the 2018-2019 school year, the Camas School District took over operations of the center from Boys & Girls Clubs of Portland, ending a 14-year relationship. Previously, the district owned the space and kept up maintenance while the Boys & Girls Club operated the program.
“We’re taking our time with the programming,” said Olivia Eagle, the center’s activities program director. “We wanted to start with the basics and figure out our rhythm.”
In 2017, Traci Rose, chief advancement officer for Boys & Girls Clubs of Portland, told The Columbian the Boys & Girls Clubs had decided to do away with the Camas program because of an increased need in Portland and in Clackamas County. The club, which opened in 2002, was named after Jack, Will and Rob Warren, who died in a plane crash in November 1999. Jack, Will and Rob were 14, 13 and 9 years old, respectively, when they died. The boys’ mother, Geri Pope Bidwell, led fundraising efforts to build the $5.3 million club.
Eagle, who has worked at the center for two years, said staff tried to mirror the programs available before the district took over the center to make it a seamless transition.
“The one thing we tried to do is let the kids roam around more,” said Eagle, a 2012 Camas High School graduate. “We let them pick a room in the morning where they want to start their day. The Boys & Girls Club is a bit more structured. It’s really opened up their creativity and given them autonomy to choose how they spend their day.”
Kids can play in the gym, go outside, play in the game room, create in the art room or spend a limited amount of time in the computer lab. Eagle said kids have taken to recycling boxes from snack time to make projects. They also hold talent shows, and kids create their own costumes. Besides giving the kids more freedom in how they spend their time, Eagle said staff replaced pool tables in the game room with standard tables.
“The kids can play their own games there now,” she said. “Most young kids don’t know how to play pool, so they just hit the ball all over the room. Now they’re building all these sculptures with blocks. Give a kid a table and see what they can bring to it.”
When the Boys & Girls Clubs operated the center, it was used mostly for after-school programs. In the last year, it was used throughout the day, according to Superintendent Jeff Snell. During the school year, it still has an after-school program, where kids can participate in all those activities, read, do homework and take classes.
The center is close to Helen Baller Elementary School, which has allowed the district to use the center for physical education and music classes. On occasion, teachers can bring their classes to use the computer lab. When it’s raining or snowing, kids have recess in the game room or art room. Liberty Middle School and Hayes Freedom High School classes also used the space in the last school year.
“It’s been a win-win during the school day that we’re able to help our students and create more opportunities for our students and principals,” said Mary Weishaar, director of community education for the district. “It gives them some more space that they didn’t have. It’s been nice to have these extra rooms.”
The district has also used the building to hold community meetings, Snell said.
Since Camas owned the building, it didn’t have to pay once the Boys & Girls Clubs decided to stop running an after-school program there. Snell said the facility is self-sustaining, with fees for the after-school program, classes and rentals going to maintenance, upkeep and salaries for the center’s 12 employees.
The district also moved the resource room to the Jack, Will and Rob Center. Snell said there’s a washer and dryer for laundry and a clothes closet for families in need of help. Eagle, who is also the district’s liaison for homelessness and foster care, said that has brought more people into the center.
“They come in for the resource room and see that we also have child care available,” Eagle said. “We have a few scholarships for families who maybe couldn’t afford it, so that helps, too.”
One issue the district has run into is that the center increased enrollment since the district took over. Before Camas took control of the center, after-school activities were held at the Zellerbach Administration Center, where Weishaar said there were five classrooms with room for up to 160 families for kindergarten through fifth-graders. The district has 209 families in third through fifth grades signed up to use the Jack, Will and Rob Center this upcoming school year, she said.
“I am full, and am looking at different ways in the future to increase our programs,” Weishaar said. “I can only take so many kids. We’re at our capacity for both sites. I do need to look at other ways to have after-school programs for families at their own buildings. That’s what I’ll be focusing on the next few years”