At Home is a series of intimate conversations from people’s homes across Oregon. See our full coverage.
“Wow, wow,” Alejandro Soto Zavala remembers thinking when he first arrived in Mitchell, Oregon, a town of 126 where he was about to spend the next 10 months. Alejandro is from Leon, Mexico, a city of 2 million people. Mitchell, he thought, “was really small. What I expected was way bigger.”
Mitchell sits along Bridge Creek in a narrow canyon that’s a two-hour drive east of Bend on Highway 26. The downtown is two streets, and residents there warn you, “If you blink you’ll miss it.” It has an old West feel, with wood facades on many of the buildings.
It’s a former logging town, a few miles from Oregon’s famous Painted Hills. When logging dried up, the population began to dwindle. Nearly a quarter of the residents left between 2000 and 2010. There’s no cell service, no chain stores, no hospital for miles.
But there is a public school. And it’s one of the most fascinating schools in the state. Alongside the local kids — children of nearby cowboys and ranchers — there are high school students from Germany, Thailand, and Hong Kong. They’re exchange students who have chosen to spend their year abroad in remote, rural Oregon.
They’re joined by teens from around the region who struggled in Portland, Eugene, and Salem. Their families have sent them to the school because they had problems at home.
These 20 international and regional boarders all live under one roof in a dorm at the school. They’re watched over by Doreen Williams, the “dorm mother” who cooks, cleans, and cares for the kids 24/7, except for the two weekends she gets off every month, which she’ll often spend cutting the kids’ hair.
Students From Abroad
Like Alejandro, many of the international students say they were taken aback when they arrived in Mitchell.
“When I first entered (the dorm), Mom asked me something and I didn’t understand anything — literally anything,” says Pedro Veleiro Aparicio, who came to Mitchell from a town outside Madrid, Spain. “I just look at her and I said ‘yes’ like I was understanding everything. ‘Yeah, yeah of course.’”
He was scared about spending a year here. “That night, that was horrible, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I’m not going to understand anything here.’” Now Pedro is the class clown, cracking jokes, and telling the OPB crew that he was singularly responsible for making dinner that night — which, of course, had been made by the dorm mother.
Not everyone was apprehensive at first. Niklas Gross, who came from from Hamburg, Germany, was thrilled with the sense of Americana. “I was really excited,” he says. “This town looks really similar to a town in a good, old Western movie, like the buildings with all the wooden signs on them.”
There are still some cultural disconnects for Niklas. He jokes about participating in Future Farmers of America, something that probably won’t help him in Hamburg. He makes fun of some of the things you learn, like farming processes and soil judging. But he enjoys getting to miss school and leave Mitchell to go to FFA competitions.
“You can make it a bunch of fun even if you don’t really care about the competition,” he says.
Some of the students had siblings or classmates back home who recommended the program to them. The year is an opportunity to work on speaking English, and unlike an exchange program, that sets up a student in a homestay with a single family, the students here live with one another and learn about countries besides the U.S.
But the remoteness can be a drag. Leung Kwan Ho is from Hong Kong, and he’s used to life in a metropolis. On any street, he says, “There is a shopping mall. I walk two minutes, another shopping mall.” But nevertheless, he came back to Mitchell for a second year to work on his English.
When asked if he would stay on another year, Torben Schwalowsky from Hamburg says, “I would like to but.” He pauses, and seems to think through the consequences. Then he adds, “Hamburg is nice, too.”
Students From The Region
“A lot of the people from Oregon, they’ve had problems with their family or other issues that they have within themselves,” Paige Oglesby explains.
Families that can’t afford private boarding schools but want to find a school with fewer chances for their kids to get into trouble will turn to Mitchell. The district doesn’t need to transport its students, so it diverts the money the state typically dedicates to busing towards running the dorm. The students from the region staying in the dorm only need to pay $180 a month for housing.
When the population started to shrink and the number of students in the school dropped, administrators looked toward a public boarding school in Crane, Oregon as a model for boosting their attendance and funding.
“I didn’t get along with my family,” says Paige, who is from the Portland area. “I didn’t want to be there and they wanted me to be in a place that I could thrive.” So they decided to have her attend Mitchell School.
So far, Paige feels it is working for her. When she goes back to the Portland area, she misses Mitchell and her dorm mates, who she calls her family. It’s the source of a new friction at home. “(My mom) gets really upset when I call Doreen ‘Mom,’ because she’s like, ‘That’s my job.’”
Paige is coming back next year by her own volition. “I love it here, and I love Doreen, and I love the school and the teachers,” she says. “It’s something that’s really helped me.”
But the remoteness can affect the kids from the region just as much as it does the international students. “A Taco Bell and a shopping mall would be amazing,” says Jon Eastwood, from Sutherlin, Oregon. “I love food and I like walking around looking at things I can’t afford.”
Life In The Dorm
Doreen Williams, the dorm mother, is the force keeping the ship afloat.
She’s been on the job full-time for 10 years, and was a substitute for two years before that. Nearly all the kids have taken to calling her “Mom.”
“Mom is someone who may be half your size but can still kick your butt,” says Jon. “She is probably the single strongest woman you’ll ever meet in your whole life, and there’s literally nothing she can’t help you with.”
He says that kind of support is something he experienced “for a while” while he was young, “and then my stepmom came along.”
The sense of family is felt among the students, too. “We see each other as brothers and sisters,” says Emily Ritterpusch. That includes both a strong, loving bond, and also the rivalries and pettiness that all families experience. “We argue lots … we scream at each other,” says Emily. Six girls share one bathroom, she explains, “and then you can imagine how many fights there are about the shower time or who wants to sleep in.”
The hardest part about school, everyone seems to agree, is the first few weeks, students are adjusting to life in a very small town in which they don’t know anyone. Dalton Kuplent, from Eugene, says the trick is to “make as many friends as you can as fast as possible. They help a lot.”
Alejandro says distraction is key to avoiding homesickness. “Play football or hang out with friends,” he advises. “Otherwise, when you’re alone, you think and think and everything takes you back to your home country.”