CORVALLIS – Sleep was one of the lowest priorities at the third annual overnight “Camp-In” for eighth-grade girls at Corvallis Middle School last Friday, Jan. 17. Organized by school counselor Elizabeth Mohanna and her enthusiastic committee, 17 other female staff members and two community leaders as well as guest speakers rallied around all 34 girls to inspire, educate and make memories.
By the way, all 58 eighth-grade boys went snowshoeing on Friday and found their own methods for male bonding.
“Research shows that single-sex experiences can enhance a student’s education and enrich the learning experience once classes are reunited,” said Mohanna. “Our hope is that the boys and the girls learn things about themselves that would not have otherwise been addressed or explored.”
The theme for the girls’ overnight activity was “We can do it, too!” with Rosie the Riveter as their mascot. Donning Rosie-inspired polka-dot head wraps, the adult women welcomed the girls at 5 p.m. on Friday and provided inspirational and fun activities, as well as meals, until 9 a.m. on Saturday morning.
Friday’s healthy dinner was followed by multimedia presentations by six women in the community who are working in careers that have been historically dominated by men.
Claire Kemp and Mary Marsh, owners of Bella Boutique in downtown Hamilton, taught about the history of fashion and the tendencies for male designers to care little about comfort, mobility or functionality when designing women’s clothing. They praised women like Coco Chanel who not only advanced in the industry, but designed clothing that women actually wanted to wear and wouldn’t require alterations in anatomy to fit.
Sonja Best, a primary investigator scientist at Rocky Mountain Labs, was featured in a short video on the success of her studies and award recognition that was celebrated at the White House with President Barack Obama and then she spoke of her experiences.
Originally from Australia, Best was interested in art, drama and ballet when she was a teenager, “and then I realized that science can be just as creative. … It’s a privilege to be able to be a scientist and to have the flexibility… to decide my own questions and find the answers to that question.”
She said the girls may not realize that Rocky Mountain Labs is a world-class research facility because it’s in their own backyard, but if they had the opportunity to learn from mentors at the lab, they should pursue those interests.
“With persistence, you will discover your potential and the only way to get there is to surround yourself with good friends and good mentors … positive influences who will be encouraging you because of the gifts you have,” she said. “Believe in yourself. You have everything you need to become anything you want to be.”
Similarly inspiring messages were shared by Nicolette Weston, a nurse practitioner at Corvallis Family Medicine, and Heidi Hagen, a veterinarian at Alpine Vet Clinic in Missoula.
If Mohanna was surprised by the girls’ responses to the well-orchestrated evening of events, it came when the final speaker started a loud, exciting video about smokejumping with cameras attached to helmets as they plunged from airplanes into the face of wildland fires.
“I didn’t know that the (girls) would all want to be smokejumpers when they left,” said Mohanna. “Ariel stole the show in a good way. It was a really good finale for the ladies who spoke. Ariel is such a kick. She is such a cool, powerful lady.”
Ariel Starr is a member of the Missoula Smokejumpers crew and brought a parachute unfurled as well as all her clothing and equipment. She received a rousing round of spontaneous applause when she announced that of the 400 smokejumpers in the United States, 20 are female, “and I’m one of them.”
With training similar to that of a marine and something that she described as “six weeks of collective suffering. … I had to work extremely hard to get where I am,” she said. A graduate of the Job Corps program, she went on to college and described her path that led to her career. She also described the very short, but quiet serenity of jumping from a plane.
In response to a question from one of the girls about working with a crew of men, she said, “I won’t lie, there are a lot of days that are really lonely. Some days I just have to go in the woods and scream when there’s no one to talk to … but like anything that is hard, you have to look inside and dig deep. In the end, you realize that family and friends are what matter most because “that’s who you get to come home to.”
She said it’s not impossible for smokejumpers to also be wives and mothers if they have a supportive and flexible partner.
“If you’ve got a great work ethic and a great attitude, you can make it,” she said.
Trinity Hamilton and Kylee Shay were very impressed with Starr. “She dropped out of high school and still made it,” they said. “It’s pretty cool to know there’s so many options.”
Station rotations took up the next several hours as the girls learned to protect themselves with self-defense instructor Vicki Barden, to love themselves with tips on good nutrition with school nurse Marybeth Talia and 4-H MSU extension agent Katelyn Anderson, to laugh at themselves while dancing Oula-style with Diane Olsen and to prepare for the future with mentoring from female high school members of the Trust Club with guidance from Wendy McGourty the SAFE prevention coordinator.
“This was our first year with the Trust Group,” said Mohanna, “and it’s definitely something we want to repeat. Having the high school girls there as mentors was a great thing.”
Sophomore Madison Murray agreed, “We just want to make sure we help them get ready to have a great high school experience and answer any questions they might have.”
Other activities late into the night included a movie marathon as well as art and craft projects, letter writing and more dancing.
The whole evening was inspired, not only by Mohanna’s personal experience of attending an all-girl high school, but also by a program sponsored by “Thrive” where 12 girls from every high school are chosen to attend an all-girls seminar in Bozeman.
“We had to have all the girls apply to go and they all wanted to go,” said Mohanna. “So we found a way to have that same experience here.”
Mohanna and Corvallis High School counselor Alexis Holland have submitted a proposal to make a presentation at the April gathering of school counselors from across the state of Montana to encourage them to incorporate similar overnight activities to help combat social issues and build self-esteem as well as school unity.
“I think we’re the only school in Montana that’s doing anything like this and we want to share how effective the program can be,” said Mohanna. “The more sense of community we can build here, the safer our school will be, too.”
Mohanna had unwavering support from the Corvallis School Board and the middle school principal Rich Durgin, “This is the third year that our school has offered this innovative program, and it wouldn’t be possible without the many staff and community members who generously volunteered their time to work with these young ladies,” Durgin said. “The girls left the camp excited about the future, and after hearing from many successful women professionals in our community, they know that the sky is the limit if they work hard in high school and beyond.”
Mohanna also received support from Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital and businesses like Evans Ace Hardware to help offset the cost and provide each girl with a “swag bag.”
She said, “By about 5:30 a.m. the last of the girls bedded down for a few hours sleep, but when it was time for breakfast and they all helped clean and jumped to help. We were all out of here by 9:30 a.m. It was amazing.
“For those of us who work at the school, it didn’t feel like work at all,” said Mohanna. “We were able to utilize a lot of creativity, make connections with kids and address things that aren’t in the curriculum all the time. I really believe in the concept.”
For more information, contact Elizabeth Mohanna at Corvallis Middle School at 406-961-3007.