Camp Orkila: bringing joy to the lives of kids

Camp Orkila: bringing joy to the lives of kids

Within the Orcas community, there is a multi-layered operation that bustles quietly about its business.

For more than 100 years, YMCA Camp Orkila has been educating, inspiring and challenging thousands of children. Many of the campers are from cities and towns that are in stark contrast to the natural beauty and seclusion of Orcas Island.

As a volunteer for the camp during fundraising season, I was invited to a tour of the 280-acre, waterfront facility this week.

What a treat.

Nearly 250 kids were at camp that day, tucked away doing a variety of activities like beachcombing, climbing a ropes course, swimming and arts and crafts. The camp is open year-round and offers programs that range from day camp to women’s wellness week to teen expeditions.

“We aren’t a closed box of mystery. Everyone is welcome to see what we do,” said Haley Winchell, who heads up the outdoor environmental education program. “Donors give to us and don’t always know what it goes towards. Please call us to set up a visit.”

Many of the donations help with scholarships; one in seven children receive financial aid. On the day I visited, the camp was hosting 75 kids from a school district in Seattle, and 80 percent of those kids received scholarships. I watched a small group of them climb a high ropes course. One young woman (see photo) announced that she would only climb as high up the wooden pole as she wanted, and then would come down. Fully secured in a harness with her classmates belaying her on each side, she slowly made her way up. The counselor called out: “How do you want us to support you right now?” It’s important for the campers to communicate their needs.

When the girl reached 30 feet, she looked down and said: “I want to keep going.” With shaky but determined legs, she walked across the wooden beam between the two poles. It was incredible to see the determination and teamwork that went into that moment.

Afterward, I sat down in a packed dining hall to share lunch with the kids, parents and counselors. The food options are unlike most camp food: there is a full salad bar, healthy snacks, and gluten-free/dairy-free options.

I saw just a small slice of the magic that is Camp Orkila. It’s just one more way that Orcas Island is the best place to call home.