Institute for Applied Ecology takes Oak Creek women on river trip

“Stroke!” Jada Nielson bellowed, keeping the time of the six rowers in her raft. “Stroke!”

Nielson, who with most of her fellow rafters lives at the Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility in Albany, was concerned that the girls in the other raft were passing them.

It shouldn’t be happening, she thought, as she goaded along a good-natured rivalry: “We got a better boat than them,” she said.

For the previous 10 miles on a guided rafting trip from Peoria County Park to the Crystal Lake Boat Ramp in Corvallis, Nielson’s boat had led. But after a lunch stop, five miles from Corvallis the other boat pulled ahead.

Seeing Nielson's boat gaining, the four girls and two adults in the other boat responded by paddling with vigor. Her boat pulled even, though, and staying even for a while, Nielson asked for a truce.

The other girls agreed. However, just a couple of minutes later, Nielson started paddling again and quietly encouraged her fellows to join in. They gradually pulled ahead once again.

The scene occurred Aug. 11 during a grant-funded rafting trip that the Corvallis-based Institute for Applied Ecology put on in conjunction with the youth correctional facility. The trip was the first of six outdoor learning trips in the “Unlocking the Outdoors” program for women in the Oak Creek’s Young Women’s Transition Program, in which Oak Creek residents who have good behavior are allowed out into the community.

According to Lori McGovern, a juvenile corrections counselor with the transition program, the goal of the program is to serve as a bridge between the correctional system and the communities into which the women are released.

“They get the opportunity to have one foot in the community, and still have structure,” she said.

McGovern said 10 of the 60 women at Oak Creek are in the transition program. And, she said, women in the program are much less likely to return to the correctional system: She estimated that the recidivism rate for the transition program is about 1 percent. The overall recidivism rate for the Oregon Youth Authority (of which Oak Creek is a part) is about 22 percent.

The raft trip on Monday offered a window into the transitions program, and its participants.

Learning about teamwork

For Nielson, the trip was a break from the routine visits to the community that program participants usually make to locations such as libraries, employment offices, humane societies (for volunteer work), and Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

Nielson said it gave her a chance to confront her fears: She was scared of water before the trip, but by the end she felt comfortable dangling a foot in the water. Earlier in the trip, her compatriots drew a scream from her by pointing to a pink irrigation-intake hose and claiming it was a snake.

Nielson said she has been in Oak Creek since November 2013 for “negative behavior,” including drugs and running away.

She said she felt like she got to take a leadership role on the raft, and she liked the feeling of having others depend on her.

“I learned a lot about teamwork. If we all work together, we can really get somewhere.”

Nielson, of Portland, said she’s likely to get out of Oak Creek in December, and she hopes to get a job.

Before she was in the youth correctional system, Nielson said she was a one-way thinker, but her time at Oak Creek, and events like this rafting trip, have helped open her mind to ways in which she can live that don't involve the activities that brought her into the system in the first place.

“I learned to think outside the box. There are other ways to have fun besides doing bad things,” she said.

Building experiences

Stacy Moore of the Institute for Applied Ecology said the goal of the program is broadening the perspective of women at Oak Creek through experiences.

Moore said the Institute for Applied Ecology is planning an additional five adventure experiences for Oak Creek transition participants over the next six months, including a raft trip on the Santiam River in September, a beach cleanup in October and a visit to the Depoe Bay to do a whale survey.

The program has $6,000 in funding from Willamette Habitat Restoration and a $3,000 grant from the North Face Explore program.

“It’s an excellent opportunity,” said McGovern, with the transition program. “It’s the first time we’ve ever done anything like this.”

She said most of the eight girls who went on the rafting trip have substance abuse issues in their past, and other crimes associated with drug use.

The transition program is for young women about to leave the correctional system who have demonstrated good behavior. Oak Creek residents have to earn their way into the program.

“It means they have been doing well at Oak Creek. It’s a privilege to come out in the community and not be in handcuffs,” she said.

The Institute for Applied Ecology’s “Unlocking the Outdoors” trips are relatively new, so it’s too early to tell if the trips have improving recidivism rates.

But McGovern already sees a value to the outdoors program. She said trips that those in the program have an impact on the girls who go, and can inspire other girls at Oak Creek, Oregon’s only youth correctional facility for women.

“It might be a motivator for a girl who has been struggling to get it together to get into the transitions program, so she can do things like this,” said McGovern.

McGovern said it was a particular joy to see the city girls on last week’s trip because most of them hadn’t had much previous experience in the outdoors. McGovern said a big moment for her was watching as Nielson saw a bald eagle for the first time.

Field science

Two other Oak Creek residents on the rafting trip, Frida Ramirez and Mariah DelaRosa, frequently smiled and laughed as they kicked up sediment in the riverbank, then scooped up the resulting detritus, filling a plastic tub with rocks, mud and small aquatic life. With enough samples collected, the pair waded into the shore, cringing and complaining as they walked over rocks slimy with algae to get to shore.

Their after-lunch experiment was to collect samples from the Willamette River and then survey what they found. Working from sheets, they sorted their finds into three categories: pollution-intolerant species, such as the caddis fly and water penny; species somewhat sensitive to pollution, such as clams, mussels, cray fish and dragon flies; and pollution-tolerant species, such as snails, midges, and aquatic worms.

After tallying up their results, Ramirez and DelaRosa compared their finding to the other pairs. The samples collected included many pollution-sensitive and pollution-intolerant species, and a handful of pollution-tolerant species. Moore said based on those findings they can conclude that the stretch of river they surveyed, around five miles south of Corvallis, has fairly low pollution.

Science and natural education are planned to be components of the upcoming “Unlocking the Outdoors” trips.

Both Ramirez, 18, and DelaRosa, 19, said the experiment was fun, and they hadn’t done a lot of field science in their lives.

DelaRosa said the women in the transition program view the trip as a reward and had been looking forward to it for more than a month.

“We don’t ever get to do stuff like this,” she said.

Ramirez said she liked getting away from the “synthetic environment” she lives in at Oak Creek.

The rafting trip, she said, “takes you away from society and the setting we are usually in. It’s very soothing. You don’t hear girls talking all the time. You breathe fresh air.”

Ramirez said drugs brought her to Oak Creek, but she has only a bit more than a week left before her release. She has been in Oak Creek since early this year.

“It has been the longest wait of my life,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like a lot, but in here it’s a lot,” said Ramirez, of Salem.

She said she will live with a foster family in Salem.

She added that the rafting trip may have a long-term effect on her.

“It showed me something different to do that might keep me from things that would take me off the straight and narrow,” she said.

DelaRosa, also of Salem, said she found the trip relaxing.

“Out here you don’t have to worry about nothing,” she said. “It's like a pause.”

DelaRosa works at Carl’s Jr., and will move out of Oak Creek when she can find her own apartment.

She said many people are quick to judge people who have gone through the correctional system.

“The mistakes we made don’t define who we are,” she said. “We all get generalized because we have that title of being criminals.”

DelaRosa said she considers herself lucky that she was caught and went through the correctional system. She said an abusive relationship was a major factor in her ending up at Oak Creek, as were drugs — although she said she wasn’t a user herself.

She plans to start at Linn-Benton Community College this fall, and her long-term goal is to pursue a career in social work, and potentially join the Peace Corps.

“Through helping others, I found a purpose,” she said.

Anthony Rimel covers K-12 education. He can be reached at 541-758-9526 or anthony.rimel@lee.net.