Investment in the future: Pilot program sends area youth to camp

September 13, 2012

By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Summer camp can change lives, whether it is through new experiences, learning when school is out or having a safe haven with a nurturing staff.

That was the basic premise behind the Youth Summer Camp Pilot Program funded by the Harvest Foundation of the Piedmont this summer.

The program was deemed a success Wednesday at a celebration held at Rives Theater.

“At the end of the day, I saw children’s lives changed,” said Gladys Hairston, a program associate for the Harvest Foundation. It showed that “our community can come together for those kids,” she added.

Harvest paid or partially paid registration and other fees for 180 of the 630 youngsters participating in camps held throughout Martinsville and Henry County this summer.

The camps have existed for some time. But this program made the camps available to children who otherwise might not have been able to study drama, become junior naturalists at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, learn about the arts or keep up with their school work, among other camp offerings.

Fifty-six community organizations dedicated to helping others had set aside any of their differences and instead cooperate on the common goal of enriching youngsters’ lives through the pilot program, according to Hairston and Allyson Rothrock, executive director of the foundation.

Although Harvest contributed more than $78,000 on the program, it turned to the community agencies and partners to make the idea work, according to Rothrock.

“I don’t want anyone to feel this was driven by one entity,” she said. She added the Harvest grant was tapped only to pay the costs of registration, transportation on public school buses and associated fees for 180 youngsters aged 5 to 16. The agencies had the job of absorbing the additional students in their programs and providing interesting, fun and challenging programs for them.

Larry Ryder, chairman of the Harvest Board of Directors, said that in an area hard hit in the economic downturn, “programs like this are great.” They also are “the epitome of teamwork,” he said.

Co-organized by youth-serving agencies such as the Boys & Girls Club of the Blue Ridge and the Family YMCA, many of the summer camps included trips to places like the Virginia Museum of Natural History, Piedmont Arts Association, the Spencer-Penn Centre, Fairystone State Park, trails and other attractions.

The impact of the Harvest grant was two-fold, according to Laurie Wardle, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of the Blue Ridge.

“One, students who had never attended camp had a fun, educational experience,” and enrichment camps in the area were full, she said. Without the program, some of the camps may have been canceled due to low enrollment.

“We were able to increase our enrollment” because of Harvest funding, said Brad Kinkema, executive director of the YMCA. Also, “we were able to partner with enrichment camps in the area, many of which struggled to get enough participants to warrant holding a camp.”

The program also fit Harvest’s three program areas, according to James McClain, vice chairman of Harvest’s board. On education, students worked on reading, math and other subjects to combat summer learning loss, and they did hands-on activities such as gardening, he said.

On health, the youth learned about healthy eating and activities, and the took part in outdoor activities such as swimming. On community vitality, they visited area attractions to “learn what a great place this is to live,” McClain said, calling the program an investment in the area’s future adults.

The program targeted children in families that are at or below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level ($46,100 annual income for a family of four), according to Rothrock and Hairston, who also managed the program for Harvest. The largest number of youth, 65, were from families of three with an income of no more than $38,180 per year.

“Because it is often difficult for families in poverty to trust sending their kids outside of the home if they have no knowledge of what the camp looks like, who will be there, transportation” and other factors, Rothrock said all of the involved agencies agreed in the beginning that door-to-door recruiting was needed to get youngsters enrolled and parents on board.

Tim Harrison, a program coordinator for the Boys & Girls Club of the Blue Ridge, said he was among those who went door-to-door, with a focus on recruiting youngsters from the West Side of Martinsville to participate.

However, students from other areas of the city and Henry County also took part in the program.

Toward the end of Wednesday’s presentation, Naomi Hodge-Muse of the local NAACP praised Harvest for the program but complained that the NAACP’s role in helping recruit children for it was not acknowledged.

Hairston responded that Hodge-Muse did a lot for the program but, she added, there were so many partners who helped that it was impossible to mention them all.

“It’s not about the adults,” Hairston said. “The kids are the most important” part of the program, and people from various agencies and groups should “take their badges off” and work for the betterment of the children.

Organizers and funding partners plan to review data to determine what went well and identify areas that need to be improved upon, Rothrock said. But all are determined to continue the program in some form in the future, she said.


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