SALT LAKE CITY — The baby boy once carried to U.S. congressional committee meetings by his father, the late Utah Democratic icon, Bill Orton, is nearly grown up. He's trying to make his own difference in the world.
Just like his dad did.
Will Orton, 17 and a high school senior along the Wasatch Front, has been teaching young Navajo children simple science and math tricks at a summer camp he created in San Juan County. His goal for Camp Einstein, he says, is to help the impoverished kids, who live a world apart in a remote part of Southeastern Utah, see they have potential.
Instead of becoming truck drivers, "my goal is to help raise a generation of students who aspire to become petroleum engineers," says Orton. "When my students realize that such a career is possible for them, they are stunned.
"Camp Einstein helps young students realize what is possible, rather than simply what is," he said. He doesn't like traditional learning, so he deliberately makes Camp Einstein novel.
For his efforts, he's been named one of 25 finalists of the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes in 2012.
Orton's project started nearly two years ago.
"In April 2011, I was getting ready for school and one of the local morning shows was doing a feature on students at Monument Valley High School in Southern Utah. While the students performed their native dances, I was reminded of the stories my late father told me about the hardships Navajo students who lived in his congressional district faced," Orton said. "I had never been to the Navajo Reservation. I didn't know anyone who lived there. But I felt like I could do something to help."
Orton searched the Internet for the most impoverished areas of the state, and Montezuma Creek on the Navajo Reservation popped up.
He started making calls.
"Convincing people to take a 10th grader from Salt Lake City seriously was a bit of a challenge," he said. But by the end of May 2011, he had found a place to hold the camp, a place to stay and a group of willing volunteers.
Missionaries for the Church of Christ, Ray and Oleta Whaley, helped him get the camp started, handing out flyers and letting volunteers bunk in a shed behind the church.
Today, Orton and his little band of volunteers feed, teach and inspire between 40-50 students from kindergarten age to sixth grade in Montezuma Creek during the summer camp.
Orton plans each day's activities and experiments around a theme.
For instance, this summer Monday was Environmental Science and Biology Day. He and the kids took nature walks, made water purification kits, pizza box ovens and cooked s'mores in the sun.
Tuesday was Money and Math Day. Volunteers hid treasure bags around the school and gave the kids GPS coordinates to help them find the bags.
Once they each found a $1 coin, they went on to learn about finances and math.
They made cookies based on their math calculations from a recipe for three dozen chocolate chip cookies divided down to one dozen — then they baked each other's cookies and taste tested the results.
On Physics Day, students experimented with eggs, plasma balls and quicksand made of cornstarch and water. The kids learned they could stand on a carton of eggs if the weight was evenly spread out.
They found the tub of quicksand hard when hit or run across but like water if one tried to pick it up or stand in it.
Chemisty Day included making clay volcanoes and Silly Putty from glue and borax.
On Awards Day, everyone watched Mentos and soda fountain contests.
Orton says Camp Einstein is the only summer enrichment program of any kind in Montezuma Creek.
"Things we take for granted in Salt Lake — like summer programs, grocery stores, banks, clothing stores, etc. — don't exist there," Orton said. "We have to drive 40 minutes one way to Blanding to find a store or an hour one way to Colorado to find basic supplies for the camp. There are so few resources and opportunities available, but the kids are brilliant, cooperative and eager to learn.
"I would like to see Camp Einstein grow to accommodate as many as 100 students, even including middle school students and teaching them high school-level science separately from the elementary school students. However, we would need many more volunteers in order to make a large camp successful. We would also need to raise additional funds to handle a larger group."
It costs about $2,500 each year to host the camp, which costs participants nothing.
Orton's basic understanding of poverty, need and potential has changed because of his efforts.
"I didn't even know anyone who was Navajo before I arrived in Montezuma Creek. Working in Montezuma Creek has completely changed the way I view the roles that poverty, opportunity and access play in the success of both individuals and communities.
"I took enrichment opportunities and access to everything from educational information to healthy food to running water for granted.
"Changing minds about what is possible has to start somewhere, and I know that I was meant to be working with parents and teachers in Montezuma Creek to do just that," he said.Comment on this story
Patricia Benally, a teacher at San Juan Elementary School who nominated Orton for the Barron award, said she'd love to see the program go forward.
"The kids just love it. I commend him for it. Most of our kids are not exposed to hands-on science," she said. "I'm hoping he can do more of it."
Sharon Haddock is a professional writer with 35 years experience, 17 at the Deseret News. Her personal blog is at sharonhaddock.blogspot.com.