Driving east from Occidental to Pinole, Tim Johnson was unsure how he should break the bad news to the students at St. Joseph's School. As a site director for the Caritas Creek environmental education program, based in western Sonoma County, it was one of his many tasks to make on-site visits to the participating Bay Area classes. As with every school he visited, the students would be excited to see him. Tall, boyishly handsome and exuding the sort of benign expression found in kindergarten teachers and Sesame Street characters, Johnson was well-liked by the students at St. Joseph's.
Johnson's popularity, of course, was simply a reflection of the students' love for Caritas. As a heavily enrolled school-year environmental education program for over three decades, Caritas Creek's unique and engaging approach to inspiring early adolescent children has proven to be an inimitable experience for tens of thousands of Bay Area children over the years.
Technically, however, Johnson was no longer employed. Just days earlier, the entire Caritas staff had been collectively terminated by the program director at Catholic Charities/Catholic Youth Organization (CCCYO) when they conflicted over proposed changes to the core tenants of the thriving program.
Against the demands of CCCYO, Johnson figured he would keep his appointments and at least offer some kind of in-person explanation. Greeting him by his nickname, Gus, the St. Joe's eighth graders asked Johnson anxious questions about the troubling rumors they heard on MySpace concerning problems with the Caritas Creek program.
"It was all very emotional, especially for the younger kids, who were asking me why they couldn't go to Caritas anymore," Johnson says. "The teacher at the time told me that she might need to get grief counselors."
As the official rationale of a "staffing problem" first leaked out, numerous parents, teachers and administrators, who have long considered the Caritas staff of college-educated teacher-naturalists one of the program's best assets, deemed the explanation severely insufficient.
"We were very upset about the closure of Caritas at Occidental," says Karen Francis, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at St. Patrick's School in Rodeo, "so my students and I wrote letters to CYO and the San Francisco and Oakland [dioceses] about how we felt."
Matters soon devolved further when CCCYO filed a multimillion dollar federal lawsuit alleging trademark infringement against a few of Johnson's co-workers who sought to relaunch Caritas at a new location. With emotions running high, a heated tug-of-war ensued over the prevailing identity of the camp.
The origin of the 216-acre CYO site in Occidental goes back to the early 1930s, when Father John Silva purchased 12 acres on Salmon Creek and converted it into a wilderness camp for teenage boys. Shortly after World War II, he donated the camp to the Catholic Youth Organization of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, who within a few years gave more serious attention to developing facilities for a formal outdoor recreation experience.
Later, in the mid-1950s, CYO purchased an additional 74 acres in the area and began running a more complete program for the Bay Area's schoolchildren.
As a young girl from the Epiphany School in San Francisco's Excelsior district, Paula Pardini's time at CYO's summer camp would become a huge influence on her life's direction. She volunteered as a junior counselor in high school and worked summers at the CYO camp while in college. In the coming years, her experiences with CYO would prove to be a key inspiration for her founding of Caritas Creek.
"CYO was an amazing experience for me growing up," says Pardini. "Nothing moves kids the way the camp environment does."
Now in her 60s, Pardini is upbeat and animated in recollecting her earlier days. With expressive eyes that are as bright as her shiny white hair, she tells of how her CYO experience landed her a job at the more affluent Cloverleaf Ranch camp in Santa Rosa during her mid-20s. There, Pardini would eventually help break the camp's color line by raising funds to bring a group of inner city youths from Oakland to attend, an act that proved significant beyond its more obvious reasons.
"It was the best session the camp ever had, because you had eight kids who embraced everything with enthusiasm and appreciation," Pardini explains. "The year-round director told me, 'This was the spirit shot that this camp needed for years.'"
The unique dynamic of pairing children from vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds was an experience that Pardini kept close as she searched for a Northern California location to establish her own outdoor camp a few years later.
"The idea was to provide children with the opportunity to connect with one another on a common footing," says Mary Gordon, a cofounder of Caritas Creek, "without the trappings of what your history is or how much money you have, and to have them understand how similar they are rather than different."
Settling into the spectacular natural setting of the Mendocino Woodlands, Pardini's young team launched Caritas Creek as a nonprofit organization in the summer of 1975.
"I suggested 'Caritas,' because it is the Latin word for 'God's love,'" says Pardini, "and we combined it with 'Creek,' feeling that it combined the spiritual with the environmental. Caritas is about these connections, with your environment, your contemporaries, your god."
In addition to its outdoor summer recreation camp, Caritas Creek began to distinguish itself with a unique school-year environmental education program that took a distinctive spiritual approach to engaging its students. Drawing from numerous sources, including her master's degree program at the University of San Francisco's Institute for Catholic Educational Leadership, Pardini generated a vibrant philosophy with a focus that would be summed up as "self, others, nature and spirit."
"In the beginning, we really had to show people what we were trying to do," says Gordon, "but over the years we had developed a unique niche. Today, there are many choices for environmental education, but people continue to come back to us because of the history and the reputation we have built."
Through Pardini's earlier contacts with CYO, Caritas Creek began to rent out the Occidental facility in 1979 to conduct environmental education. By 1984, the two had joined a partnership, with Caritas running the school-year program and CYO providing financial and facility-related backing.
The program was indeed highly multifaceted. Set among the redwoods, the camp would purposefully schedule schools from sharply differing locations—such as San Francisco's affluent Marina district with Oakland's struggling International Boulevard—for a week of its unique curriculum. Recreational activities such as archery, canoeing and ga-ga ball (a more rambunctious though ultimately less sadistic version of dodge ball) were matched with academically oriented nature hikes and scientific study. More spiritually engaging activities proved integral to the program, such as Serendipity, which sought to engage students in matters of community, self-identity and relationship-building by inviting them to share their views and emotions in intimate group conversations led by a teacher-naturalist.
"The activities that are set up for the kids [at Caritas] are well thought-out and have a deeper meaning," says Sonya Simril, principal of St. Leo the Great School in Oakland. "The Serendipity is one of the best aspects of the trip. The kids have the opportunity to sit down in a circle and share something, personal or not, knowing that everyone will respect them."
Although documents prepared for their 2007 court case sketch an ever-teetering relationship between Caritas and the upper management of CYO, the program thrived over the years, garnering stellar assessments from teachers, parents and administrators.
"If school were perfect, all of school would be like Caritas," says Ann Manchester, former superintendent for the Oakland Diocese and the exiting principal of Holy Name School in San Francisco. "The program completely engages kids on all levels and appeals to every kind of learning style. It's a week of total learning, immersion and complete community formation."
As teachers and parents saw their kids return from Caritas with better behavior and positive perspectives, the weeklong camping experience became a core curriculum component for numerous schools from San Jose to Lake County. Most noticeably, the students themselves regarded the trip as a special experience that delved far beyond the usual classroom monotony.
"When we were told in the eighth grade that we were going [to Caritas] again, the reaction of everyone was crazy, and we couldn't stop talking about it until we actually got to camp," says Hannah Kargoll, a former student of St. Joseph's of Notre Dame in Alameda. "The lessons really carried over with us when we got back, because at Caritas, they made a really big point that everything we were doing there could be brought back with us into the world."
Eventually, continuing management conflicts between CYO and Caritas led to Pardini's resignation in 1999. The camp's popularity and high evaluation marks from participating parents and teachers would continue under Pardini's longtime assistant Paul Raia, even as tensions between the partnered organizations heightened.
After CYO completed its merger with Catholic Charities in 2003, it acknowledged the revamping of its winter and summer camps as a defined priority.
In 2005, CCCYO's HIV director Dr. Glenn Motola's promotion to director of programs was initially perceived as an encouraging development by members of Caritas, who were eager to see someone from the head office exhibit an on-the-ground understanding of what the program was and where it needed assistance.
"When Glenn Motola started as director of programs, he came to camp and inflated us about how he loved Caritas and how he thought it should be the flagship of CYO programs," says current Caritas director Erik Oberg. "He really had our support when he first arrived at camp."
The optimism proved short-lived. Caritas staff members assert that Motola's promise of a hands-on presence never manifested, as he instead began to reveal a perspective sharply out of touch with the realities of the program.
"I remember Glen Motola promising us that he would be around a lot and watch activities, but he never did," says Nelson Hernandez, a current teacher-naturalist at Caritas Creek, "so the people who wound up making some really big decisions simply had no real understanding of our program."
Although CCCYO executive director Brian Cahill recognizes the popularity of the CYO-Caritas program, he asserts that it was not fiscally solvent and was falling short in other key areas. Negative feedback from teachers regarding the environmental education program, however small, typically pointed to the same two concerns: cabin supervision and a need for a higher prioritizing of the science content.
"At the time, there were serious parental concerns regarding supervision," says Cahill via email. "[Our current] curriculum is now aligned with the California 4&–8 grade science standards, which was not the case prior to 2007."
While everyone seemed to agree that the use of high school students for cabin supervision needed revamping, the notion of shifting the emphasis away from spiritually engaging activites toward a more explicit academic experience became a lingering point of contention.
"Glen started talking about how we need to shift to a science standards program," says Oberg, "and if we did that, we could charge more. So everything was then leading to an inevitable goal of a science standards program as Motola started critiquing us in crazy ways."
Moving into 2006, matters between Motola and Caritas management deteriorated so badly that a legal document prepared by Caritas for its court case one year later characterizes the time period as the point when the divide between the two organizations "became concrete." The document provides a laundry list of conflicts between Motola and the Caritas management, which ultimately resulted in the resignation of two junior Caritas program directors in the space of about a year. (Motola, who is now the director of the Oak Hill School in Sausalito, declined to comment for this article.)
"The only thing we ever knew was that Paul Raia was struggling with the corporate office," Johnson says, "we never had any tangible evidence that anything was really wrong, because CYO management were never around. Enrollment was doing great and most teachers were willing to book their week again as they were getting on the bus to leave."
While some members of the staff caught wind of rumblings with upper management, such squabbling appeared to be a mainstay since the days when Pardini first formed a partnership with CYO.
"I left for Christmas break without any thoughts in my mind of things not going well," says teacher-naturalist Camilla Guevara. "I knew that CYO was constantly second-guessing the program, but we just thought of Glenn Motola as some guy in the administration who didn't get it. It was his job to get it—but he didn't."
Within a mere few days of returning from break in January, the entire program had fallen to pieces.
Little more than a week prior to hosting their first class of the 2007 spring semester, Motola called a meeting of the entire Caritas staff on Jan. 17, and presented them with a list of changes to the program that needed to be instituted immediately. Depending on whom you ask, the Caritas senior program director Paul Raia either personally chose to be absent or was prohibited from attending. (Now set to begin as the executive director of the Next Generation nonprofit in Marin, the conditions of Raia's severance package restrict him from commenting for this article.)
Earlier in the month, Motola had received the final report of a camp evaluation he commissioned from the risk-management firm Camp and School Consulting. While the report acknowledges many positive attributes of the program, it ultimately calls for a sizable overhaul of numerous aspects of the camp and the environmental education program. The assessment echoed many of Motola's perspectives, particularly on moving toward a more narrowly defined science-oriented curriculum. The list of changes Motola then presented to the staff heavily reflected the recommendations of the evaluation.
"Outside professional consultants had vital recommendations regarding supervision and best practices, [which] were not received in a positive manner by camp leaders," says Cahill, "and they elected to sever ties."
Among the list of roughly a dozen changes were issues such as the ever-worrisome dilemma of cabin supervision, disciplinary procedures and numerous facility-related matters, issues which the Caritas staff claim that they had expressed a full willingness to support. However, three points in the area of "Curriculum" proved contentious: revisions to the program's "Serendipity" activity, a halt to the mixing of school groups and a restructuring of the week-concluding practice of "Celebration."
It was in these three proposed revisions that the staff saw an effort by CCCYO to revamp the core tenants of Pardini's program and skew it toward a completely new focus that removed the emphasis on connecting with the kids.
"The one change that I just couldn't get behind was the separating of the schools," says Johnson. "Why would you want to separate these kids when the whole point is to bring them together? It's against what CYO says their mission is."
When questioned on Motola's insistence on the segregating of schoolchildren from differing socioeconomic backgrounds, Cahill asserts, "Our camp philosophy is to meet the needs of various groups of kids regardless of socioeconomic background, with specific programming and trained facilitators that meet their distinct, individual needs."
Befuddled by how such core changes were to be implemented in the space of about nine days, the Caritas staff contends that they requested Motola's specific plan on how to proceed.
"We said, 'If you want us to make these changes, how should we do it?'" says current Caritas program director Emily Wood Ordway. "We were willing to hear their ideas. After two hours of discussion, they said we had to vote: 'Yes' you're willing to stay, or 'no' you're not.'"
What ensued is a matter of starkly different recollections. Cahill states that "the former camp leadership was not willing to consider implementing program changes. As a result, the program was temporarily suspended and staff were laid off in order to allow them to receive benefits."
Conversely, the Caritas staff claims that they had brokered a second meeting set to convene two days later in which Motola and other CCCYO staff would return with a tangible plan for implementing the changes in such a short space of time.
"They came back on Friday and they had no proposal at all," says Ordway. "There was no dialogue or choice on the matters. Nothing. Just eviction notices and letters of termination."
Shocked and discouraged, many Caritas staff members simply returned to their homes around the country. Some dug in and tried to rally support against CCCYO's decision, while others began looking forward.
"A lot of staff members were from out of state and left right away," says Ordway. "A couple of us stuck around, and I started talking to Erik [Oberg] about doing our own camp."
With the eager support of three schools, the duo successfully spearheaded an effort to run a pilot program for a new camp in nearby Cazadero. Amazingly, they had it up and running with a fully volunteer staff by April.
In late spring, Oberg and Ordway had paired with Gordon and Pardini to launch a new incarnation of Caritas Creek in the fall of 2007 at their new location in Cazadero. Pardini and her new partners mailed out their fall registration forms for environmental education shortly before CCCYO mailed theirs. Unsurprisingly perhaps, both parties claimed to be Caritas Creek.
"Within a week of us sending out our registration, CYO sent out their form for Caritas Creek," Ordway explains. "That was followed by a lot of confusion and disgruntled responses from school administrators who were trying to piece the story together and decide who to trust. The phone calls just started pouring in."
In light of the emerging conflict over who had the legitimate rights to Caritas Creek, Oberg, Ordway, Gordon and Pardini were served with papers informing them that CCCYO was suing them for trademark infringement for $9.6 million, as well as a court injunction to halt any further use of the Caritas name and logo in connection with the Cazadero camp.
"We had no resources and we didn't know what to do," says Ordway. "We were so passionate about the program, but felt that if we could not continue to call it Caritas Creek, it wouldn't work."
However, Pardini's lawyer soon arranged a meeting with Paul Vapnek of Townsend and Townsend and Crew, one of the most renowned lawyers in the field of patent and trademark law at one of San Francisco's oldest firms. Soon, the new upstart incarnation of Caritas Creek had a stellar legal team—pro bono.
"One of the reasons I'm still coming into the office on a regular basis is cases like Paula Pardini's and the other Caritas Creek people," explains Vapnek, "because these were interesting issues and these were people that desperately needed help. And the firm was willing to let me and several of our younger lawyers represent them without charge."
When it came time for the hearing, Caritas entered the courtroom as a community. "We rallied people associated with the camp to show up for the hearing," Ordway says. "On our side of the courtroom we had 44 supporters; on the CYO side of the courtroom they had the executive director [Brian Cahill]."
The judge quickly turned down CCCYO's request for an injunction, and within the week, a settlement was being brokered. Among the details, CCCYO would relinquish any claim to the Caritas name or logo, while the Caritas staff would be required to state on all of the materials that they are not affiliated with CCCYO. It was a stipulation they were all too ready to accept.
Today, both CCCYO and Caritas Creek operate camp programs in close proximity to each other. The former is quick to cite its compliance with California science standards, and points to the 750 children currently enrolled in its summer camp program. Meanwhile, Caritas is presently running a summer camp in King's Canyon near Sequoia National Park.
Yet the most telling postscript to the split is that Caritas Creek has ended up with the lion's share of schools in its environmental education program. Whereas the final 2006 school-year program of CYO-Caritas Creek boasted 88 participating schools, nearly 50 of them had already attended the new incarnation of Caritas in Cazadero, a telling sign as to whether a spiritually oriented program has any staying power with the Bay Area's Catholic school system.
As one teacher remarked, "It's ironic to me that it's a Catholic Youth Organization that wants to focus more on science."