By Olivia Olivia for PQ Monthly
On the banks of the Sandy River, Camp Namanu prepares for its 93rd summer hosting families from around the Pacific Northwest and further on. This somewhat traditional camp setting boasts all the hallmarks of an American summer camp experience – fire building, nature hikes, wishing rocks, and unique songs campers say they remember into adulthood. But it also has something else that’s a little different than most traditional summer camps: it’s a place a that welcomes LBGTQ families and children and is a home for diverse populations that say they’ve come to understand themselves and others better at this fantastic place in the woods where memories are made.
In an era where organizations across the country are scrambling to work with new kinds of families and relationships, and comply with anti-discrimination laws, Camp Fire, which runs Camp Namanu, says it has been grappling with the issues of inclusion since it opened 105 years ago, in 1910. At the time, the organization focused on providing opportunities for women and was called Camp Fire Girls. It was the first non-sectarian organization for girls in the United States. Programming in the Northwest began in 1911 as groups in Forest Grove led expeditions to a campsite at Rivera, on the banks of the Willamette River near the present site of Dunthorpe.
The organization gradually evolved, and the Portland Council was officially created in 1921. Not long afterward, a search began for a site that would host a full-service residential camp. The 552-acre plot of forest land located at the confluence of the Sandy and Bull Run rivers was donated to the Council by local lumberman Samuel B. Cobb and later became what is now Camp Namanu, which has been in continuously open since 1924.
Trystan Reese, Vice President of Development and Communications, explains that that Camp Namanu went co-ed in the 1970s when Camp Fire made the executive decision to include boys in all areas of the program. The program was notable when it started for being open to participants of all races, which was exceptional at the turn of the last century when it began. “When an organization is founded on 100 years of inclusion, that ethos is part of your DNA.” Explained Reese of how the organization has become known for its inclusion of various genders, orientations, and family structures during a time when other businesses are struggling to catch up with social justice and inclusion of LGBTQ communities.
Andy Lindberg, Director of Namanu Programs and Facilities, explained that the camp has a long history of helping others discover themselves. “This is a place where you have an opportunity to be yourself that doesn’t have those strings attached to your home community or immediate or extended family,” says Lindberg. “A lot of kids come to camp and really have an opportunity to be themselves in a way that impacts them for the rest of their lives.”
Lindberg went on to say that although the camp is known in many ways for traditional summer camp experiences – playing in the woods, learning crafts, and hiking – that many alumni can attest to find acceptance there that they struggled to find elsewhere. “Many active alumni, men, and women, will tell you that when they came to the camp in the 1960’s, they found acceptance here for sometimes the first time in their lives, and they are still involved because of that experience.”
Many share the beacon of hope that Namanu offers for those looking to find a place that accepts them. Mustafah Finney, a young Black man who grew up in Portland, since he seeded his passion for nature and the outdoors at Camp Namanu when he was only in sixth grade. Years later, when he was in high school, he applied to be an outdoor class leader. As a summer camp counselor, Finney developed leadership skills he says he might have not have accessed as easily elsewhere.
“It was hard for me to explain to my immediate family, but at camp, I learned to find nature peaceful and inspiring. It was always a struggle being a Black male, going into arts, and going to camp,” he said. “But when I started taking photos out in nature I just felt more connected, and I learned more about myself there.” Finney would go on to be Camp Fire Columbia’s Middle School Program Coordinator and recently moved on to work at a local nonprofit, New Avenues For Youth after eight years of camp work. “I will never forget my time there,” Finney adds. “I am stronger because I learned more about myself and other kinds of people at this camp that helped me accept myself.”
Other kinds of families and individuals abound at the camp, and one budding family even says they wouldn’t have started without Camp Namanu. Katy and Jenna Guertin-Davis say they met over ten years ago at the organization while on staff and hit it off right away in the unique and pastoral landscape. “I grew up Catholic,” explained Katy of her background. “I knew I wasn’t necessarily straight, but I had never been in a relationship with another woman before. Then I met Jenna.” The couple just welcomed their second child 8 weeks ago.
“We got married in September 2009, right when the camp was dying down for the summer, and it was super campy, super gay, and super us,” Katy says beaming. “And we want our kids to go camping at Namanu and know where their family started and know they will be accepted no matter what their family looked like and what kind of people they become.”
Although the family says their kids are too young to enroll at the moment, they hope to get them involved as early as first grade. Camp Namanu, which welcomes youth between the ages of 7 and 17, is currently enrolling and hiring for their summer season, where they hope to bring in more families and staff that can benefit and enrich their lives in a welcoming and accepting environment. To learn more or get involved, visit campfirecolumbia.org.
“We hope however they get here, wherever they are from, that kids just get to be kids at our camp,” says Trystan Reese of this upcoming season. “It’s an experience that will last them for their rest of their lives.”