Everything I learned in Life, I learned from Working at a Wilderness Camp

I would like to preface this blog with some information about a place near and dear to my heart. In 2004, I took a job as a teacher at Camp E-Kel-Etu, a therapeutic wilderness camp located in The Ocala National Forest. EKE fell under the umbrella of Eckerd Youth Alternatives, a non-profit working to help “at-risk” kids. EKE took in boys aged 10-18 who were mostly committed by their judges to be there. We were a non-punitive program that believed in kids and worked with the philosophy that good kids make poor choices. It was our goal to teach them to make better choices. Along the road, we designed and built outdoor tents, planned and cooked meals outside, had experiential educational classes and went on hiking and river trips lasting up to 21 days. Some of us slept with snakes under pillows. Some of us learned how to make pizza on a stick. Some of us learned that bleaching fingernails does not turn them back to their normal color and some of us learned that peeing in the shower does not cure river trip jungle rot (athlete’s foot). We all, however, learned how to show love, care and support for each other.

1. The art of cooking isn’t really an art at all unless you can do it over an open fire. Sure, maybe you know how to whip up the best casserole in your neighborhood or maybe your family looks forward to your famous pepper steak recipe but, take it from those of us who lived in and/or worked in the woods, you ain’t got nothin’ on us! We can take that famous recipe of yours, improve upon it and cook it over an open fire in the middle of a thunderstorm while managing the construction of an outdoor tent.

2. Everything in life moves with much more ease when you set time goals. When managing a group of 10 boys, it’s imperative to set time goals to get everything accomplished, especially if you want to get to meals on time. Of course, anticipating problems is part of the trick of mastering time goals. When I set time goals with my daughter, I have to think about all distractibility variables before coming up with a feasible time goal. Once the equation has been figured: Gracie + 3.14/how many books need to get picked up and put away + slipping on the floor – Dora the Explorer/Mommy’s exhaustion level squared = The appropriate time goal.
3. Being a girlie girl doesn’t get you far in life. When you live in and/or work in the woods, you learn to become one with nature, whether you want to or not. Working at a wilderness camp in The Ocala National Forest, you can encounter black bears, venomous snakes, vermin and creepy crawlies of all types. Oh yeah – and alligators. On a rare occasion, you might even have an encounter with The Rainbow People, infamous throughout Ocala for their gypsy-like lifestyle and their manufacturing of crystal methamphetamine.

4. Back that thing up! When working in groups of 10 at a camp with 60 boys, you need vans to get places. What if you’re going on a canoe trip? You better make sure that you not only know how to properly attach a trailer but that you also know how to back that thing up. I’m proud, as a sophisticated and stylish woman, that I can hop in a van with a trailer hitch and park a trailer with 6 canoes on it.
5. William Glasser is the shizniz! Part of working at a level 6 program for adjudicated youth meant that you had to go through extensive training. Duh! What I loved about our training was that we learned about William Glasser’s Reality Therapy and Choice Theory. I can honestly say that I use Reality Therapy and Choice Theory every single day.

6. Be the map. A motto of Eckerd Youth Alternatives is “Be the Map.” Those three words are a wallop of a punch. Think about that for a second. Be the map. Those of us that work with kids have a responsibility to not only teach them but to lead them as well. Telling someone how to do something is so easy, isn’t it? Showing them, though? Walking them through an experiential learning process? That’s something entirely different.




12 responses to “Everything I learned in Life, I learned from Working at a Wilderness Camp

  1. Chief Andy aka Chief Superman

    Nice little story Ellen. You came to camp after I left. It was a nice read and reminder. And yes, those of us who have and do cook on an open fire are better cooks.

  2. Sounded like a great time. I’ve always wanted to go to camp. Will you go back? And what is reality therapy?

  3. Kayanna, here’s a link about reality therapy. They closed EKE so I won’t be going back there and, even though there are other therapy camps around the US, I’m going to keep teaching high school for a while. I feel like I’m in a different chapter.


  4. Nearly brought a tear to my eye. I was a counselor at E-Kel-Etu in the late 90’s and early in 2000 (No, my lantern did not go out on Y2K). I have been teaching middle school since leaving and have a completely different outlook because of what I learned at camp.

  5. I was a counselor there between 94′-’96. what campsite is that pic from? the classroom group? looks like there’s some kind of planks on your tent. When I was there it was all hand tooled cut trees, dowl rods, bt, & tarp. the floor was pressure treated 2×4’s raised on cinderblocks to prevent rot. It was 12 to a group back then and usually 2 counselors to a group so you were left alone 2 days a week. it was a mixed bag of a treatment milieu with a lot of machismo and competition being fueled by the recovering frat boys who ran the place. the experience has left unquestionable impression on me. to this day I can still track the actions, well-being and whereabouts of a bunch of people at once within an area while multi-tasking. i moved to california and counseled in modalities that allowed people to express themselves safely and regret we weren’t given more training and skills at E-Kel-Etu in recognizing signs of abuse. it’s painfully obvious now how I could have been more supportive to some damaged youth.

    • Hey Chief Rob! I took these pics after EKE had closed. I was a teacher there from 2004-’06. There were no planks and everything was built as you’re describing during my time at EKE. Apparently, DJJ’s standards grew more intense and they eventually removed many of the tools for building, which as you know, was an essential part of the program. The capsite that I took the pics in was Chawkeebans. It was a sad day to walk through an abandoned camp.

      I feel like my experience may have been a bit different than yours in that there was plenty of training. Also, there were substance abuce sessions worked into the week along with group counseling which could focus on a kid’s individual needs as he so chose to express. I’m sure that by the time I arrived at camp, DJJ and the Dept. of Ed. had implemented much more than what was mandated in the 90’s.

      I’m sure we know a few of the same people from camp as well such as Chief Jim and Chief Fred.

    • Jason Kallschmidt

      Hello chief Rob! I worked with you at EKE back in 1995 & 1996. I was with Chief Jon Gilmore and Alapataws. I hope life has been good to you old colleague. Sad to know that EKE is no longer… Chief Jason Kallschmidt

  6. michael dakota poteat

    Hey, ok so i was actually sentenced to camp e Kell etu from 2002 to 2003. I tell you, i hated it while i was there! But now that I’m grown, looking back it was probably the most. Amazing helpful, experience I’ve had my entire life. The one year there taught me more than i would ever learn in public school! I have wanted to go back several times to show my family and friends what i did, but due to time consuming jobs and being half way across the country, i haven’t been able to. I planned a trip recently to visit and found it they closed it. I still would like to share this with others, even if it’s only the pictures, so if anybody has some pictures they could email me that would be wonderful! It’s mpoteat187@gmail
    I would like to give extra special thanks to chiefs; dan, stephanie, karen, duval, jessie(and others that had to deal with me) master chiefs; Curtis and Christy. And of course super chief Bruce! And moms and pops of the kitchen and maintenance my teacher.. don’t remember the name but she put up with i lot of my crap! Thank you all.i wouldn’t be the person i am today without your help!

    • I got there in ’04 so I just missed you. I am very good friends with Jessie and will let her know. I also keep in contact with Stephanie so I’ll mention you to her as well. As a matter-of-face, I can post this on my FB so they can see exactly what you wrote. I’m sure it would mean a lot to them.

      Working there changed me. It was truly a special place that I’ll never forget. From what I know, a church group rents the land now but things may have changed. So sad that it closed.

  7. Michael Montgomery

    I remember being in chuckwagon and watching those planes hit the World Trade Center on 9/11. I loved being there and I am sad that Camp E-Kel-Etu is no more. I remember Chief Andy, Chief Marcy, Chief Dwayne (and his awesome motorcycle) and of course Chief Fred. I am forever grateful to this place. Chief Jeremiah was awesome, as was chief Ian. Everyone was.

  8. I attended in 04 to closes to 06 , kaleb bowman is me name, chif Ann took over at time, I was 15 I’m 24 now. This p,ace has changes my life, withput it I would have never learned simplicity of my life. I’m looking to talk to some past chiefs.

  9. I love your article. I love Eckerd Wilderness Camps. They helped save my life. I wanna help.

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