Unique camp for disadvantaged and at-risk youth features police, fire and military personnel as its covert counselors

More than a decade ago, Newberg-Dundee Police Department Sgt. Gwen Johns was asked by then Deputy Chief Brian Casey if she would be interested in participating in Camp Rosenbaum, a weeklong camp for at-risk youth living in public housing each year at the Oregon National Guard’s Camp Rilea near Warrenton.

Not sure exactly what to expect of the experience, Johns agreed to give it a try. And she’s been back almost every year since.

“I was hooked,” she said. by: SUBMITTED - To protect, serve and make camp awesome - Sgt. Gwen Johns, also known as 'Pelé,' poses with one of her campers at the conclusion of this year's Camp Rosenbaum, which was held the last week of July at the Oregon National Guard's Camp Rilea near Warrenton.

A 42-year-old nonprofit organization, Camp Rosenbaum draws its counselors each summer from the ranks of the Oregon National Guard as well as police and fire agencies and housing authorities across the state. But the campers don’t know that; they generally don’t find out what their counselors “really” do for a living until the last day of camp, when they appear in uniform.

“The kids are so funny,” Johns said. “They really think that being counselors is what we do. And when they see us in uniform on Friday, their eyes just get huge.”

For some of the disadvantaged youth and their families, police, fire, military and housing authority personnel may have been previously associated with unpleasant memories. Johns said a week at Camp Rosenbaum can and does often go a long way toward changing those paradigms.

“I think it really helps us build that level of trust and respect that they may not have had before,” she said. “They’ve seen us invest in them and their future, and they realize that we care about them and just want to give back to our communities.”

Ken Howell, also an NDPD officer, is another Rosenbaum regular, who volunteered at the camp earlier this summer for his eighth year. Howell subbed in for Johns the one year she was unable to participate, and he became just as “hooked” as she.

“It’s just infectious,” he said. “It’s hard to explain until you actually go down there and experience it.”

It’s not only the officers’ real professions that are concealed from the campers early on, but also their real names. Instead, the counselors adopt camp nicknames for the week. Inspired by his hairdo (or more accurately, his lack thereof), Howell is known as “Slick Top.” Johns, a soccer fan, goes by “Pelé.”

The campers spend the week engaged in many of the activities one might expect — fishing, nature walks, horseback riding, sandcastle building, crafts and games — but there’s also a definite focus on education and leadership training. The camp boasts a science lab and regularly hosts professional biologists who teach the campers about animal physiology using real bones. Campers have also taken field trips to the Seaside Aquarium, the Columbia River Maritime Museum and Fort Clatsop.

Although the week offers a memorable reprieve, Johns and Howell both said the campers’ home circumstances are never fully left behind. Johns said she has had several girls tell her that Camp Rosenbaum is the first time they had ever seen the ocean; Howell said his boys often say their “favorite part” of camp is the three square meals they get each day.

But the camp does make an impact. Johns said she still runs into campers from time to time, now much older but who still remember her only as Pelé. She also related a story of a child who was forced to call the police during a domestic incident. By pure coincidence, the first officer to respond turned out to be the girl’s counselor from Camp Rosenbaum, which helped put her at ease.

“It’s very different than police work,” Johns said. “But it’s very fulfilling, and it’s a lot of fun, seeing them opening up and allowing themselves to be kids.”

And of course, it’s not just the campers who benefit from the weeklong excursion. As it turns out, police officers do relish the chance to set aside the trappings and responsibilities of the uniform in exchange for silly camp songs and tradition and a few carefree days of fun and sun.

“I’m already counting down the days till next year,” Howell said with a grin.

For more information, including how to donate to Camp Rosenbaum, visit

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