EAST STONEHAM – Fifth-grade students from Oxford Elementary School abandoned their classrooms for two days last week as they participated in a special program run by Camp Susan Curtis.

Tucked in a valley encompassing 2,500 acres of private wilderness, the camp afforded students the opportunity to try their hands at everything from a ropes course to orienteering to water quality testing on Trout Lake.

The program, Camp Director Pat Carson said, “is about 50 percent leadership skills, goal setting and that whole bully-proofing thing.” The other 50 percent, he said, focuses on environmental education.

Nature-friendly leadership camps are everywhere these days, but this was a special opportunity for the elementary school students. Camp Susan Curtis is run by the Susan L. Curtis Charitable Foundation and provides underprivileged Maine youths with affordable or tuition-free programs. The two-day camp, for example, costs each student $5.

Counselors and chaperons donated their time to bring the total cost to $12.50 per student, per day, Carson said. School officials and parents worked to raise the additional funds.

As several of the students gathered at a ropes course Friday, it was obvious that the camp stay was going well.

Fifth-grader Torrie Figueroa stumbled while trying to negotiate her way across a thin, wobbly wire suspended between two trees. Her classmates, acting as spotters, immediately helped her from the ground and back onto the wire to continue forward.

Later, Carson asked Torrie why she hadn’t given up.

Working on another ropes course element the day before, she said, everyone had worked together.

“So it made me (have) a little more trust,” she said.

What did the team of spotters do as Torrie walked the wire?, Carson asked.

“We protected her,” replied student Jonathan Simoneau. “We held her up so she wouldn’t fall.”

Fifth-grade teacher Melissa Guerrette was chaperoning the camp excursion.

“It’s been a good opportunity for the kids to kind of see each other in a non-classroom environment,” she said as she watched her students tackle the next course obstacle: The Wall. The students worked together to lift and pull one another over a high, flat wall erected in the woods.

“Their communication skills have improved incredibly over the last two days,” Guerrette said.

Someday, Carson said, he hopes the short camp can be turned into a grant-driven program that is available to more Oxford Hills students. He noted that several of the volunteer counselors were Oxford Hills teens who have attended the summer camp for years.

One was Miranda Olmstead, a junior at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School.

Olmstead said Friday she’s preparing for college, but it will be hard to leave camp behind. In her nine years as camper and counselor she has learned a great deal about communication and working with others.

“I’m definitely a different person here, but I’m learning to apply that in the classroom,” she said, adding that her camp time has given her the confidence to speak out in front of her peers.

“These kids are so lucky to have something like this,” Olmstead said.

Fifth-grader Nicholas Record seemed to agree.

“I think that it’s fun, and that we have to use teamwork to get through some of the activities,” he said. Some of the activities were hard, he added.

“Yeah, it’s challenging,” said his classmate Caldie Jackson. But he plans to use his new teamwork and leadership skills on the soccer field when he gets back to school.


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