Camp KEEP, environmental education program for 3 generations, goes virtual — for now

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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — If you’re between the ages of 12 and 64 and you grew up in Kern County you’re probably familiar with Camp KEEP, the five-day environmental education camp that’s been teaching fifth- and sixth- graders about the science and wonder of nature for three generations.

Well, Camp KEEP, like so much else, has gone virtual.

This, after all, is 2020, and like so much of our world, the Kern Environmental Education Program — better known as Camp KEEP — has gone virtual.

Kern County students have been enjoying Camp KEEP since 1969. In a normal year, 7,000 students take week-long field trips with their classmates to one of two residential science schools on California’s Central Coast, run by the Kern County Superintendent of Schools.

The kids can’t smell the salt air this year because of the pandemic but Camp KEEP counselors are making the best of things, recreating the experience with everything from the silly songs to the science projects.

Elizabeth Roberts, the director of Camp KEEP Ocean, located in Montaña Del Oro State Park, near Morro Bay, said program managers knew they couldn’t just sit out the pandemic.

“There is a huge chunk of Kern County kids that would just miss out on this transformative experience that’s a rite of passage,” she said. “Everybody in Bakersfield has gone to Camp KEEP or knows somebody who’s gone to Camp KEEP. So we didn’t want to just ignore it.”

There’s a virtual lesson about the environment for each of the five days students would be at camp, most of it recorded by Camp KEEP staff in April, May and June.

They’ll teach kids about ocean life, about the chaparral, about food chains and more, as well as basic tenets of research and scientific argument — respectful argument.

What a year to discuss respectful scientific argument, with climate change and forest management at the fore of debate as California deals with an unprecedented number and severity of wildfires.

Camp keep counselors don’t really go there — no politics. They’re happy just to get kids to understand and appreciate the world in ways they haven’t before.

“Everything that Camp KEEP does is based on the premise that if children are introduced to something beautiful they’re going to love it,” Roberts said. “And when you love something then you are going to take the steps you need to take to educate yourself about it and to potentially protect it.”

Virtual Camp KEEP kicked off last week with Centennial Elementary. It continues through this school year, virtually of course.

When can kids return and enjoy the full experience. You know, campfires and their classmates’ smelly socks?

“We won’t reopen this spring but I am very hopeful,” Roberts said. “Kern County’s Superintendent of Schools has verbally told us they are committed to reopening Camp KEEP for real children to come visit us as soon as possible.”

That means next fall.

Those of us who’ve had an opportunity to serve as parent-counselors for a week have to appreciate the efforts of KEEP staff to make the experience as fulfilling as possible in this virtual setting. But there’s no substitute for touching a sea anemone as you hang off a dock.

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