Carleton College Student Founds Environmental Day Camp

When she discovered the summer job choices in her hometown of Eugene, Ore., didn’t fit her interests of environmental advocacy, community building, and education, Ani Kameenui sacrificed fast cash for a worthier cause. Together with a high school friend, the Carleton College junior founded, organized and now oversees Whole Earth Kids (WEK), a grassroots, non-profit organization that runs free summer camps about environmental issues for children primarily from low-income families.

6 April 2000 Posted In:

When she discovered the summer job choices in her hometown of Eugene, Ore., didn’t fit her interests of environmental advocacy, community building, and education, Ani Kameenui sacrificed fast cash for a worthier cause. Together with a high school friend, the Carleton College junior founded, organized and now oversees Whole Earth Kids (WEK), a grassroots, non-profit organization that runs free summer camps about environmental issues for children primarily from low-income families.

Kameenui (pronounced kuh-MAY-ee-new-ee), a geology major at Carleton, and her friend, Seth Newton, now a student at Stanford University, recognized that “community-grown” action is one of the most effective ways to address the root causes of social and environmental problems. Seeking to foster a personal connection between young people and their natural environment and create a sense of responsibility for that environment, the twosome established WEK to teach kids the skills needed to create an environmentally sound and sustainable community. The program’s week-long day camps blend community service projects with environmental education and outdoor recreation.

“I hope WEK is changing attitudes about youth and how they spend their free time,” Kameenui said. “Kids have big dreams and great ideas. WEK is all about empowering kids to act on their ideas. As trite as it sounds, it’s ‘you can do it if you put your mind to it.'”

As the third summer of the successful program approaches, Kameenui, Newton, and another friend, Zoe Bradbury, are busy seeking funding and working out the logistics of establishing WEK as an official non-profit organization, which means the program must create its first board of directors and has chosen to hire a paid coordinator to help with organizational responsibilities.

WEK began in the summer of 1998, after Kameenui’s first year at Carleton. She and Newton both grew up in an environment of activism-“he was the activist head, I was the service head, and now we’re both” she said-and the idea for WEK literally sprang from many conversations that began with “wouldn’t it be cool if?” They spent the early part of that first summer hammering out WEK’s philosophy and then pitching the idea to anyone who would listen.

They were assisted by Committed Partners for Youth, a non-profit children’s advocacy group that helped WEK gain insurance and office space. “It was crazy,” said Kameenui about the early days. “People were calling me on my mom’s cell phone and all I could think was ‘this isn’t the way most people conduct a business.'”

Eventually, Kameenui and Newton found funding through community organizations, retail stores, and friends. “It was important to us that we get funding from other grassroots efforts like WEK, and not from corporate giants like Coca-Cola and Nike, which are right in our backyard,” Kameenui said. “We wanted to stay true to our philosophy and mission.”

They recruited campers at homeless shelters, day-care centers for low-income families, churches, and schools. In August of 1998, they launched a successful five-day pilot program on watershed exploration for 13 campers ranging in age from eight to 12 years old.

The kids whitewater rafted, visited watersheds, worked in community gardens, and met with legislators in an effort to study the human, cultural, and political issues surrounding water.

Kameenui said her Carleton education has come in handy for WEK. “I’ve gotten a good grounding in earth sciences here,” she said. She’s also appreciative of the support she’s received. “Community building is reinforced at Carleton and I’ve always felt commended for doing social activism.”

With additional funding from Carleton’s geology department and a grant from Stanford, WEK expanded in 1999 to offer a week-long session on community organization for high school students, which focused on identifying and understanding the implications of important social and environmental issues in the Eugene area. Additional advocacy training taught the teenagers how they could take an active role in these issues.

A few of the high school campers continued as counselors to younger campers, who studied urban ecology and ecosystem expression. In the urban ecology unit, campers were encouraged to view their urban surroundings as integral components of the natural environment. They wrote daily journals, worked in community gardens, studied urban planning, and spoke with city council members. The ecosystem expression session explored the environment through storytelling, dance, music, photography, and various art projects.

Kameenui plans to have an integral role in the camps again this summer, but she also hopes that she can relinquish some day-to-day responsibilities.

“WEK’s not about me,” she said. “It’s about kids embracing environmental concepts-getting excited by science they usually aren’t introduced to until
much later in life. I want WEK’s success to plant the seed in other kids’ minds that they too can start small, successful community projects.”