Outreach Camp Teaches Computers, Cooperation

In a sun-soaked cabin tucked amidst the woods near Crystal Mountain, four young campers have just gotten back from an early-morning jog along the forest's beaten trails. Some complain of still being tired - after all, it is just 8 a.m.

But after a quick breakfast and shower, the boys eagerly get down to work. Armed with screwdrivers, they begin slowly to piece together the parts piled on the table before them: wires, frames, nuts, bolts, a hard drive, a motherboard - the makings of a computer.

"It's not that hard," said 14-year-old Chris Hart, who had never used a computer before. "You just have to do it step by step."

Assembling a computer from scratch, in fact, was just one of several tasks the boys tackled at Trinity Camp, a unique outreach program aimed at helping low-income youngsters who are generally bright but have difficulty learning through traditional methods.

Over two weekends, the four students, eighth graders from Stewart and Madison Alternative middle schools in Tacoma, completed a rigorous wilderness expedition, a crash course in computing and a complex final project - designing a portion of an interactive CD-ROM program, now on display at Mount Rainier National Park. The campers were awarded computers, printers and software after successfully completing the program.

"It's been really fun, especially the computer part," said 13-year-old Tim Gilles. Having a computer "is going to be really good for when I'm in high school, and some day I might even be able to be a (computer) repairman like my dad."

Trinity Camp is the brainchild of Lou August, president of Bellevue-based Trinity Technology Inc. Its aim, August says, is to take young people who normally might not get a chance to use computers out of the grind of everyday life and expose them to a new environment where they can bolster their confidence through hands-on skills training.

"We chose kids between 12 and 15 because that's when they're really reaching a fork on the road," August said. "They have to decide which way their lives are going to go, whether they're going to get discouraged and drop out (of school) or whether they're going to realize their true potential."

The boys were chosen based on financial need, physical fitness, age and learning ability. August decided to take boys only, in order to reduce complications on the program's initial run.

Most of the boys had never before had access to computers.

August had his first inkling of the camp when he was a boy. He recalls how his father, a public-school teacher in their hometown of Detroit, often told him about the children he taught, some of whom had never been out of the city.

But the turning point for August came in 1982 when his older sister was shot dead.

"I went through a motivation meltdown after my sister was killed," August said. "All the things that normally motivate people - money, prestige, power - just stopped mattering to me. I had to reassess what was important in my life."

At 23, August left behind a blossoming career at International Business Machines Corp. in Florida where he was working as a computer programmer. Four years later, August launched Trinity Technology, a personal-computer maker. By 1993, he had spent about $150,000 of the company's profit to build Trinity Camp - a five-room, 1,750-square-foot chalet on the edge of Mount Rainier National Park.

"I wanted to build a company that had a greater purpose, something more than just making money for myself," August said. "I guess it was my way of pulling myself out of the slump I was in."

The program was delayed nearly two years while August tried to get backing from the Seattle and Tacoma school districts, both of which showed interest but bowed out because of liability concerns.

But early this month, Trinity Camp finally got off the ground. With the Metropolitan District Parks of Tacoma supplying some equipment, transportation and a guide, the boys set off on the first leg of the program - a four-day hiking trip. Carrying their sleeping bags, tents and cooking gear in backpacks donated by Jansport, the boys trekked 19 miles through the national park, taking photos and video footage of their adventure.

"Outdoor activities are an important part of the learning process," said LeAnna Waite, a program coordinator for the park district. On the backpacking trip, "the kids learned basic survival skills, but they also learned the importance of hard work, determination and sticking together through tough situations."

These skills were put to use last weekend when the group met again at Trinity Camp for the computer training segment. With the help of Trinity technicians, the boys learned how to build and operate their own desktop computers, install software and navigate through various programs. The software was donated by Microsoft.

"Computer skills are essential in the job world nowadays," said Peter Liu, a Trinity technician. "We're trying to give these kids a basic knowledge of operating systems, and hopefully we're boosting their interest enough so that when they get home they'll continue to build on what they've learned."

Using their newfound skills and the footage shot during the hike, the boys then created a segment for a CD-ROM program on the national park. With the help of a programmer hired by the park, the boys edited video, recorded voice-overs and digitized photos and text to create a "Back-Country Behavior" program featuring tips on everything from planning a hike to filtering water to keeping the campground clean.

Yesterday, they presented their finished product to park officials.

August said he hopes to expand the program in coming years to 16 to 20 students and include girls. Future groups, he said, will enhance the same CD-ROM program, adding sections on such topics as wildlife, trail conditions and hiking tips.

In the meantime, Trinity Technology will market the CD-ROM, priced at around $19.95. Although the proceeds will go to Mount Rainier National Park, August said he hopes the title will ultimately generate funding for the camp by attracting companies that are willing to recruit the students for similar projects.

Trinity's biggest hurdle right now, August said, is getting its hands on the computers needed for future sessions. Each computer costs several hundred dollars.

"Our country has a heck of a lot of old computers," August said. "What we need to do is get them out of the hands of businesses that have no use for them and into the hands of kids who really need them."

-----------------------------------------------. Give us your ideas.

If you know of a person or project making a difference - from fighting crime to cleaning the environment to helping kids - call the "Making it Work" voice-mail line, 464-3338, or write describing your nominee: c/o Bill Ristow, Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. Include a phone number for more information.


For more information

To find out more about the camp or to make a donation, call Trinity Technology at 455-1288.