My daughter was born with severe Spina bifida. As such, she’s been in a wheel chair for as long as she remembers. She’s of typical cognition, as most people with Spina bifida without complications usually are. Because of this, however, she’s acutely aware of the things her peers say about her at school. Per our choice, she is not sheltered from any of this. We believe in an inclusive education for her, and no one is immune to their reality. We’ve had the pleasure of working with teachers who are heroes for my daughter, and we can only thank PPS for their work in making her school life as typical as we can hope for. Still, kids can be cruel. She has few friends. My daughter is a fighter and she sticks up for herself when she needs to. It still hurts her feelings, and I know this because she tells me when she gets home. I can see it in her face everyday. She’s tired of it, and worn out most days.
But then there was Outdoor School. I didn’t grow up here, so I had only heard about Outdoor School as this far-off place where 6th graders went for a week. In my mind, it was just another place where my daughter would be left out. You can’t hike in a wheelchair, you can’t roll through wet fields or sit cross-legged in a circle of girls braiding hair. It’s the first thing people notice about you. I was worried about kids from other schools making fun of her in a place where she didn’t feel comfortable and couldn’t rely on her normal allies. But she wanted to go, and I knew that if she stayed home it would put her at another disadvantage socially. I hesitated and met with her teacher who assured me it would be a non-issue. Then I agreed to let her go.
I cannot begin to tell you about the level of care my daughter received at Outdoor School. The inclusion was greater than she had ever felt in any program to that point, and probably won’t feel that again anywhere else. Not only was her wheelchair a non-issue, she got a special all-terrain wheelchair that could go through the forest. Someone was there to push her up the hills and on the banks of the river. She got to go on hikes with her classmates and listen for birds, dip a net into a creek, and sing silly songs with her new friends. They pushed her through those wet fields and she sat with her peers in her cabin like it was nothing. She made friends with kids from all over town, and one girl from the other side of the river became her best friend and remains so to this day. She was even asked to be a part of the tree planting ceremony at the end of the week, which I learned later is a special acknowledgment of a job well done for the kids. Six years later, she still has her wooden name tag hanging up in her room.
A few summers later we were lucky enough to send my daughter to a camp for kids with disabilities. She had an alright time, she said. But it was just for those kids. She also could have gone to a typical camp, only to be left out. Outdoor School is the only program we have ever found that is truly for every child. They work tirelessly to make every kid feel welcomed, and those kids would never know there was anything different about their experience.
I applaud Outdoor School for giving this gift to my daughter and to every kid in our county since 1966. I feel deeply connected to it now, and as such, I almost feel ashamed of Portland Public Schools for even considering a cut to it. Do you know what kind of a jewel you have? You could cut every support program for kids with disabilities and just send them all to Outdoor School. I really believe that.
Outdoor School was truly a miracle for my daughter. When she got home, she was a different person. Confident and ready to take on the world. And now, as a senior in high school, she’s going off to college next year and she wants to be a teacher. Before she went to Outdoor School, I don’t think she had any concept of the future, or of hope for herself. Now she knows what she’s capable of, and I can only thank Outdoor School for that.
Please reconsider your choice.