Noe Montes and Gabriel Ortega explore possible options for higher education while attending the summer camp’s college and resources fair. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

ONTARIO – When Gonzalo Espinoza was 17, the Ontario High alum was bused seven hours away to attend summer camp in Corvallis.

The camp helped students from migrant and farmworker families learn more about college.

Now, students in Malheur County won’t have to go so far away to get those resources. Espinoza is spending his summer as one of 12 mentors at the Oregon Migrant Leadership Institute summer camp in Ontario.

“It’s been a long time coming for something like this here,” said Greg Contreras, the camp’s project coordinator.

Known as OMLI, the camp has existed in the western part of the state for at least 26 years, but it’s only the second year it’s been available on site in eastern Oregon.

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For three weeklong sessions, 152 middle and high school students from Ontario, Nyssa and the Intermountain area live in dorms at Treasure Valley Community College. They get college tours, attend workshops to learn how to write an admissions essay and get information about scholarships and careers. There’s even a rafting trip.

It’s all about facing fears, said Contreras, and letting the students know that college is a goal that’s within reach.

Ontario High graduate Brenda Diaz Matias designed the summer camp T-shirt. The design was inspired by her own experience as a farmworker tending to onion fields with her parents while aspiring to go to college. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

On a recent Wednesday morning, mentors sat around a table playing team-building games to wrap up their own training. They knew that as they did so, some of the students they would soon meet were out working in farm fields.

“I think eastern Oregon often gets overlooked,” said Contreras, an Ontario High School alum. In Ontario, about a third of the student population is considered migrant, according to the school district website.

It matters so much to Contreras, director of the College Assistance Migrant Program at Portland Community College, that for the second summer in a row he is using his vacation time to travel east and work for the camp.

The cost per student – $1,000 – will be covered by state and district funding. Having the camp so close to home allows the camp to access more students, Contreras said, and it also makes way for more parent involvement.

At the college and resources fair during the camp’s second session, Martha Calvillo scanned the booths.

“I thought getting into college was impossible,” said the 15-year-old. “But I learned you just have to ask questions and you can’t do it alone.”

When the camp’s second session kicked off two weeks ago, parents were filing in by 9:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning to drop off their kids.

It would be a week away from home, for some, for the first time. Letty Cuevas, an Ontario parent, was one of the first to drop off her son. Cuevas said having him in the program is important for her: “What I want is for him to go further than I did.”

Reporter Yadira Lopez: 541-473-3377 or [email protected]

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