On a recent visit to Tryon Creek State Natural Area, campers from Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) were relaxing in Jackson Shelter eating lunch and listening to speakers talk about careers and the outdoors. DeVonntae Amundson, 19, an instructor at Friend of Tryon Creek’s Nature Day Camp, got a chance to stand up and speak of his great plans for the future and at the same time, thank NAYA for helping get him to where he is now.
During his freshman and sophomore years of high school, DeVonntae was homeless and bounced between shelters and couches at friends’ homes. He dropped out of school and searched for a change and a community. He found both at the NAYA Early College Academy program, which helped reinvigorate his desire to understand his Indigenous heritage and to study environmental education.
Gabe Sheoships, Education Director for FOTC, met DeVonntae after giving a presentation at NAYA and he told him about his time as a student leader at Outdoor School and that he’d spent a summer gathering native seeds for a project coordinated by Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Science. Gabe arranged for him have an internship at FOTC and helped him focus on graduating from high school so he could pursue a career in environmental education.
“DeVonntae's maturity, wisdom and genuine good nature stood out from the first time I met him,” Gabe says. He has now served as a mentor to DeVonntae for the past two years. “His positive nature and dedication has continued throughout our work together.”
DeVonntae finished high school in June and for the past two summers while working under Gabe’s guidance, has worked with the nature day camp at Tryon. His first duty, writing stories and taking pictures, was an exciting entry to the organization, but he really wanted to be more connected to the campers and instructors. That chance arrived early this past summer when an instructor had a change of plans and left a vacancy on the staff roster.
DeVonntae jumped at the chance to be an instructor and spent the summer taking campers on ecological hikes, teaching about the natural area, singing songs and having fun.
“I prefer being out there having these experiences with the campers,” he says. “I love hearing about what makes them happy.”
Gabe agrees that the move up to instructor was a good fit for DeVonntae. “He brings an authentic passion for working with youth and has a positive outlook toward each camp-related situation. Nature Day Camp staff have long days and need to be very flexible and capable in their positions. He has been able to grow a lot during these past two seasons.”
This is all part of DeVonntae’s great plan that he spoke to the NAYA campers about. He is studying wilderness leadership at Mount Hood Community College and plans to attend Southern Oregon University to continue his outdoor education studies.
While on an Outward Bound backpacking course in the North Cascades this past summer, he became convinced he was pursuing the right path. “Indoors is not for me,” he says. “I enjoy being outdoors listening to the trees and the birds.”
His big dream is to start a camp where he can help troubled youth understand the natural world in a way that his ancestors did. “There needs to be more kids ready to take care of this planet,” he says. “If we don’t start making a change, we won’t have places like Tryon.”
After several weeks of hour-long bus commutes, warm days and energetic youth, DeVonntae maintains an energy that suggests the coffee, the wacky clothes and crazy hairdos are working as he hoped.
He’s quick to provide entertainment for a camper lingering at a picnic table, waiting for his ride home. DeVonntae challenges him to describe what a lemon tastes like and they crack each other up for several minutes with silly answers.
After the camper departs, he shifts into a leadership role and discusses goals for the final week of summer camp with another instructor. He then joins in with other counselors and instructors and listens to more thoughts and ideas about how the day went and how to make each day at camp better.
Gabe is proud of what DeVonntae has accomplished in such a short period of time. “He’s one of the most popular staff members amongst other instructors and campers. He’s humble, but also carries himself with a level of emotional intelligence that sets him apart from his peers,” he says.
“He is grounded in his Indigenous culture, meaning that he carries himself in a good way, setting a strong example for others. I firmly believe that he could do anything that he puts his mind to. He has lived and overcome a life that many in the Tryon community couldn’t fathom. He’s much stronger for it now and is able to hold a positive outlook on life and his future.”
Whether pondering the shape and taste of a lemon with a six-year-old or discussing the outdoor camp of his dreams with an adult, DeVonntae maintains focus and a positive attitude.
He expresses a bit of surprise that he’s been through so much and yet remains so optimistic and determined to accomplish his goals. “This is what I’m supposed to be doing,” he says. “Everything has led me to this point now and it’s just going to keep getting better.”
As for maintaining that child-like energy for the summer’s last session of day camp? “I’ll be 20 next year, but I’m still a kid. I’ll always be a kid,” he says with a giant smile