Author: Tamar Kupiec
The container was not much bigger than a tuna fish can, recalls Nick Balera. It was metal and rusted shut. He and his classmates from Mullinex Ridge Elementary School in Port Orchard had found it on their way to study the estuary at Blakely Harbor. But the rattle of its contents was too tantalizing, and one determined sixth grader persevered. Out came a coin, a ribbon, some knickknacks, and maybe a photograph (fourteen years later, the exact inventory is fuzzy).
But it was the ribbon with its words faded almost beyond recognition that excited Nick and the members of his field group. With the guidance of their instructor, Mark, and some internet sleuthing, the students traced this ribbon to a secret Fillipino fraternity. A freelance photographer and marketing consultant, Nick has had plenty of adventures since then, even living in Australia. But he never forgot that curious discovery and always wondered what came of it. He contacted IslandWood to find out and to see if he could return to this place which had so captivated him as a twelve-year-old boy in the School Overnight Program.
The artifacts have since been lost, perhaps packed away in an unmarked carton. But no matter. Nick was happy to be back. You see, that enthralling investigation was just one of many. “I’m not a numbers guy,” he admits. “I don’t think in formulas.” He prefers to think about cause and effect relationships, and he found a like mind in his instructor. Mark would ask the students about something they could see, perhaps a banana slug or beetle larva, and then expand from there. “Where do you think this would live?” he might ask. “What would happen if…” Nick compares this guided thought process to being “taken on a journey.”
His mother always thought her son would make a good teacher. “I do teach everyday” is his response, just not in a classroom. Nick grew up in the church, studied theology in college, and has always loved ministering. “Observation and a desire to know and grow has always been a part of me,” he says. He wants to motivate and help others in their growth, to deliver what he calls an “exhortation,” whether through conversation or art, such as photography and songwriting.
Spending four days and three nights away from home was easy for Nick. He had grown up going to camp, and he went on to work as a camp counselor. But he was looking for more than “games and goofiness.” Sure, he loved to laugh, but he wanted to learn too. He had the good fortune to attend an elementary school with an emphasis on art and project-based learning that suited him and modeled some of the same methods seen at IslandWood. Still, school is school. And well, IslandWood was something different, and Mark was not just any old teacher. “It’s like a brother vs. a parent, a friend vs. family,” Nick explains. Mark was new, he was special, and he could make a lesson feel more like a challenge or a game. Nick differentiates the “life lessons” he acquired at IslandWood from information “you store at the back of your brain for a test.” He found such a lesson in sustainability, something he had not been too aware of before coming to IslandWood and something he saw everywhere when he returned home. As an artist, Nick perceives the world visually, even back then. He was impressed with the campus’s architecture and its innovations in conserving water and energy.
Nick was also at home in the woods. He compares himself to his nieces and nephews who are often more eager to watch a movie than play outdoors. How different he was as a boy, out playing with sticks, building forts, and conjuring imaginary worlds that felt more real than those woods. Today in his photography work, he likes to shoot products, such as fashion or electronics, in the natural world and showcase the unusual beauty of the Pacific Northwest. He boasts that his home has coast, mountains, and forest. Other landscapes may have one, or even two, but to have all three is a bounty that thrills him.
As Nick was leaving the campus, new students were arriving. He could hear their bright and animated cries as they heaved their bags onto carts and wheeled them down to the lodges. “It’s like walking into a time capsule,” he marveled. Having spent the last two hours reliving his experience at IslandWood, those sounds might have been his own.