At Camp Rosenbaum, 50 years of building connections

·3 min read

Jul. 29—A line of children dressed in oversized firefighting gear charged toward an opening in a low tent.

They dived into an Army crawl, dragging a trail of fire hoses and duffle bags behind them.

A volunteer helped the children spray a fire hose — the force wobbled one boy.

What the children didn't know was the volunteers with amusing nicknames were actually police officers, firefighters, members of the Oregon National Guard and staff from Home Forward.

For 50 years, Camp Rosenbaum has hosted children ages 9 to 11 from low-income households across Oregon for free to help them build trust with emergency responders and participate in summer camp activities.

The camp is named after the late Fred Rosenbaum, who escaped the Holocaust as a boy and served as a brigadier general in the Oregon National Guard and as chairman of the Housing Authority of Portland.

"A lot of the principles that carried him through that hard time are the principles we use today," Lt. Col. Brian Kroeller, the camp director said.

The camp, held at the Camp Rilea Armed Forces Training Center at Warrenton, tries to instill values like working together, fairness and sharing.

Campers participate in horseback riding, make arts and crafts, play sports, watch movies, navigate obstacle courses, roast marshmallows around a campfire and receive training on calling 911.

Kroeller said one of the most important parts of camp is taking a trip to the beach because many of the children, who mostly live near Portland, have never seen the ocean.

Heather Bashor, of the Camp Rosenbaum public affairs team, said the camp provides a kind of stability that might not be there for the children, like three meals a day and scheduled activities.

The camp's 50th anniversary, which was originally supposed to be in 2020, was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Kroeller said not having the camp for the past two years was terrible, especially for a lot of people who volunteered for decades.

But the volunteers didn't want children to miss out on the fun of camp while stuck at home. So, they rolled out Operation Lemonade — a mission to deliver the children "camp in a bag" during virus restrictions by delivering supplies for camp activities.

Although the camp has emerged from the pandemic with about half its usual 170 campers to limit virus outbreaks, everyone was excited about some outdoor activities, Kroeller said.

"We're actually seeing a really positive vibe, not only from the staff, but from the kids this year," he said. "There's just a more general sense of happiness across the board."

On the last day of camp, the volunteers come out in their uniforms, revealing their secret identities to the children after bonding with them for a week.

Chris Skidmore, a sergeant with the Clark County Sheriff's Department in Washington state whose camp name is "Skidmark," said that moment keeps him coming back every year. He said the children are always surprised to find out he's a sergeant and will jump up and down with excitement.

Police officers getting to connect with children at the camp helps build a connection that they might not get in uniform, he said.

"It's people that they can trust and talk with because a lot of these kids, they come from backgrounds where they may not always have the best relationship with like, in my experience, with police officers specifically," he said.

Sometimes, the volunteers will run into campers later in grocery stores or even on the job.

Barry Quinn, a captain with Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, said he was responding to an apartment complex fire when he recognized a former camper.

After finding out the boy lived in the burning apartment complex, he sat with him in his truck and talked about camp memories to try to take his mind off the situation. He told the boy to tell him if he needed anything and that he had his back.

"It's nice to have that outside of here, seeing that connection," Quinn said. "They don't forget it."