The last bell of the traditional-calendar school year is still six weeks away, but many parents have worked since February to ensure their kids’ hands are busy and their minds engaged from the moment the laptops slam shut in June until it’s time to shop for fresh pencils in August.
By enrolling their children in week after week of summer camp, these families are helping to stanch what educators call “learning loss.” But children in low-income families face an educational desert unless they win one of a limited number of scholarships to area summer camps.
Thousands of children will attend some kind of summer camp this year with the fees paid in part or in full by donations. Thousands more miss out because camp organizers can’t raise enough money.
“We have had to turn kids away,” said Andrew Meyer, program specialist at Wake County 4-H Youth Development, a joint program of the county’s Human Services and N.C. State University’s Cooperative Extension service.
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Every summer, Wake 4-H sends kids to spend a week at the Betsy-Jeff Penn 4-H Educational Center, built in the 1950s and ’60s mostly under the direction of Betsy Penn on land adjacent to where she lived with her husband, Jefferson Penn, just outside Reidsville. After her husband’s death, Betsy Penn gave the center – with its 200 acres of fields, forest, streams and a lake, along with classrooms, cabins, a dining hall and other buildings – to the NCSU 4-H program to use as a summer camp where youth could learn life skills.
This year, Wake County has the camp the week of June 21-26, and can send 160 kids aged 8 to 14, none of whom need ever have participated in a 4-H club or program. Most who go will pay tuition, about $500 per youth, which includes room and board. But the county covers the cost for some children. This year, Meyer said, 85 youth have applied for the scholarships.
So far, the program has enough money to send fewer than half that many.
“In general, there is a growing need for academic support for youth in our community,” said Libby Richards, senior community programs officer for the Send A Kid to Camp program of the Triangle Community Foundation. And though some of the best ones disguise learning as fun or adventuresome, summers camps are seen as a critical way to retain or build children’s math, science and reading skills, while boosting their emotional and physical health.
Typically, a week of day camp costs from $250 to $350 per child. A week of sleep-away camp usually starts around $450.
Since the Send A Kid to Camp program started in 1984, Richards said, it has raised $2.8 million to send more than 10,000 academically at-risk kids aged 5-17 to camp. The program serves children in Durham, Orange, Wake and Chatham counties who are unable to attend camp because of disability or family finances, or who may be in foster care because of neglect or abuse.
The Triangle Community Foundation has administered the fundraising since 1994 and this year will work with 21 area camp programs, each of which must make an effort to relate some of their activities to school curriculums.
Each camp decides how it will determine eligibility, Richards said, but a common threshold is whether a child qualifies for the federally subsidized free and reduced-price school meal program. In Wake, Durham, Orange and Chatham counties, from 38 percent to 66 percent of public school students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch.
Some camps get so many applications they hold lotteries to award the scholarships.
How many children get to go to camp through the Send A Kid program each year depends on how much money the foundation gets from donors, and the return on the program’s invested endowment. Donations are still being collected for this summer. So far, Richards said, it has nearly $167,000, up from about $150,000 last year.
Most camps run by nonprofits also accept individual donations directly to their scholarship funds.
Angela Faulk, who oversees the fast-growing summer day camp at the N.C. Museum of Art, has set aside one scholarship seat in every one of the 28 camp sessions she has planned for this summer. Campers, divided by age, spend the week in the museum’s galleries, workshops and on the grounds, studying art and creating their own. They put on an exhibit of their work on the last afternoon.
While some sessions have filled up, only about 10 of the scholarships have been claimed, even though they cover all but $50 of the $250 cost.
Faulk thinks that may be because the camp does not provide transportation, and it may be a hardship for parents to drop children at the museum in west Raleigh every morning and pick them up in the afternoon. Parents also are responsible for their children’s meals and snacks while they’re at the camp.
Wendy Tonker can’t provide transportation for children at the all-outdoors day camp Schoolhouse of Wonder, but if she could raise enough money to fund 100 scholarships, she said, “I don’t think we would have any trouble filling all those spots.”
Right now, she said, she has enough to fund 76 scholarships, and 64 of those already have been offered to families.
Tonker is executive director of Schoolhouse of Wonder, which started 26 years ago at West Point on the Eno city park in Durham, and expanded last year to Umstead State Park in Raleigh. The camp will host more than 1,200 campers at its two sites between June 9 and Aug. 21.
Schoolhouse of Wonder uses the outdoors “to bring classroom lessons to life” for children and youth from ages 5 to 17. Some kids, Tonker said, don’t excel in a classroom but learn well in a setting where they feel more comfortable and with a diverse group of counselors.
“We help kids connect with nature and give them the opportunity to go on an adventure in what we know is a safe and supervised environment, but what for them feels like a very free, exploratory adventure outside,” she said.
Stacy Burns, director of Betsy-Jeff Penn 4-H Educational Center, makes sure that’s true at her camp as well, she said.
Campers are divided by age group and are assigned housing, with boys in one cluster of 50-year-old A-frame cabins and girls in another. The days are long and packed with activities; campers may hike around the lake to visit the lily-pad-covered beaver pond; swim in the pool; ride a horse; role-play in the pioneer lodge or at the Native American settlement; or tackle a ropes course.
“A lot of them, this is their first time away from home without their parents,” said Burns, a former science and math school teacher who has worked at the camp for eight years. “That’s huge. And finding out they can do that can be really empowering, and give them the courage to try even more new things.”
Campers learn to live together, if only for a week, to cooperate on shared tasks, and to take responsibility for their own upkeep. Competition for the best-kept cabin is fierce.
Throughout the week, Burns said, kids are reinforcing what they have learned in school, through exercises such as land-navigation and geo-caching, and short classes on science and the environment.
But what Burns likes best about summer camp, she said, is “how much they learn about themselves. They are definitely different when they leave.”
Want to help out?
To donate to the Triangle Community Foundation’s Send a Kid to Camp program, or to see a list of links to its 2015 camp partners, go to www.trianglecf.org/about_us/send_a_kid_to_camp/.
For information about Schoolhouse of Wonders’ summer camp or to make a scholarship gift, go to schoolhouseofwonder.org or call 919-477-2116.
Here is a list of area summer camps, some of which offer limited scholarships: www.raleighsummercamps.org/.
Information about the N.C. Museum of Art’s summer camps is at http://ncartmuseum.org/calendar/series_parent/summer_camps