ANTELOPE — During recess at Big Muddy School, kids laugh as they use the swing set, argue over four-square rules and shout “LeBron James!” as they take basketball shots, just like any public school playground. Once recess ends, silence swallows Big Muddy, one of Central Oregon’s most isolated schools. The playground noise vanishes into a high desert canyon 90 minutes from the nearest city.

Big Muddy is so remote that if any of the 23 students in its K-8 classes need supplies, their parents have to drive to Madras or depend on the UPS driver to navigate the winding, 15-mile gravel road that leads to the school.

And Big Muddy is small. It has two teachers. It has a principal, but she works in Madras.

But what makes Big Muddy School unique is this: Almost every family that enrolls a student works for Young Life, the nonprofit Christian youth ministry on the sprawling Washington Family Ranch camp. Some parents said they might not have considered living at the camp year-round if Big Muddy, a public school operated by Jefferson County School District, didn’t exist.

“We know this is a unique blessing, and we don’t take it for granted,” said Lisa Squires, a mother of two and a volunteer at the school. “We couldn’t live here if this wasn’t an opportunity.”

From cult to camp

Big Muddy’s association with Jefferson County School District, despite being in Wasco County, has a long history. Principal Melinda Boyle said her school district annexed Antelope’s school district in 1983, when the public school was in the small town 19 miles north of the camp.

During the 1980s, the 65,000-acre canyon ranch nearby was named Rajneeshpuram and was used as the compound for the Rajneeshee cult.

After the group abandoned its makeshift city later that decade, the ranch was bought by Montana billionaire Dennis Washington in 1991. Washington donated the camp to Young Life in 1997.

Two years later, the Colorado Springs-based Young Life opened its first camp on the site — one of 32 camps Young Life operates around the world, according to the organization.

Once Young Life moved in, it partnered with Jefferson County School District to bring the Antelope public school to the site in 2000, Boyle said. After five years of being housed in one of Young Life’s housing condos, it was moved to a permanent location in 2005, next to one of the two small housing developments for Young Life staff.

Boyle said her school district renews an agreement with Young Life each year to continue using Big Muddy’s building — which Young Life owns — for free, while the school district covers the cost of staffing and supplies. For the 2018-19 school year, Jefferson County School District budgeted $244,367 to operate Big Muddy, Boyle said.

Juggling grade levels and curricula

Big Muddy has two teachers. Dena Palmaymesa teaches elementary students, and Kerick Adams educates the middle schoolers. However, both of them have spent time teaching all nine grades at Big Muddy, which they said is extremely challenging.

“There’s really no model for teaching K-8,” Adams said. “You go to the teacher colleges, and you hear all these examples of how to lead a classroom, but there’s very few examples of how to do a multilevel school.”

With their duties split, the teachers said they’re able to dive deeper into subjects — Palmaymesa said she’s able to get “waist-deep” with content, rather than “ankle-deep.” Both teachers said while some subjects, such as science or social studies, can be mostly generalized to serve all elementary or middle school students, English and math become individualized by grade level. They said there’s benefits to having students learn at their own pace.

“Instead of just waiting, they learn to figure things out on their own,” said Adams. “Then, we come back around and say, ‘Excellent, you got it, now let me show you a little bit more.’”

The teachers said their classroom discussions don’t include the history of the Rajneesh cult because most families on site have explained that to their children. However, Adams joked that a couple days after Netflix released a documentary about the cult, “Wild Wild Country,” people drove out to the camp a few days later out of curiosity.

Although it’s clear that Big Muddy is on a Christian camp — some kids wore shirts with Bible verses, Christian music lyrics or the Young Life logo on it, and the small library has a few books from the evangelical Left Behind series — the teachers said their lessons stay firmly secular, and the residents prefer that.

A remote but supportive community

Living in the same, tight-knit community has been a unique experience for Palmaymesa and Adams, who said they stay involved in the area’s events despite being the only non-Young Life employees. Their constant proximity to their students has led to awkward situations, like when a neighbor expected Palmaymesa to control some rowdy boys during a community event.

“One of the community members said, ‘What are you going to do about those kids, Teach?’ I said, ‘I’m off-duty,’” she said.

Initially, Young Life required parents to volunteer at the school, Palmaymesa said. Although parents no longer have a mandate from the company to help, at least one parent of each child volunteers in the school, whether its teaching art or music or supervising during lunch and recess.

Carol Adams, volunteer music teacher, a parent of twins in eighth grade and the wife of Kerick Adams, said she appreciates how the tight-knit student group forces the kids to learn social skills.

“You can’t just say, ‘I’ll just choose to play with someone else,’ you have to work through it, which is a great skill,” she said. “You learn how to get along, and they do; they love each other like family.”

Living 90 minutes from Madras High School, most teens living in the camp take high school courses online through Jefferson County, Boyle said. Five do that this year.

But for the first time, a few incoming ninth-graders will make the long trek to Madras High for classes. Reasons for making the trip include the appeal of socializing with outside teens, participating in career and technical education courses, and joining sports teams. The latter reason is key for Parks Tolton, 14, who travels to Bend three or four times a week to play club soccer.

Adams and Palmaymesa — who taught in Keizer and Metolius, respectively — said they love how the Young Life community has rallied around Big Muddy and its students.

“Being in town, there were parents I never saw. Here, parents are behind us 100 percent,” Palmaymesa said. “When we celebrate a graduation, it’s all of us together that got a child to this place.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7854,