Smithfield Herald

Smithfield summer camp focuses on black history, heritage

The Family Life Center is offering a summer camp that aims to help black children connect with their cultural heritage.

The Harambee Summer Camp is a six-week day camp geared mainly toward African-American kids ages 6 to 14.

The name comes from the Swahili word meaning “pull together.” African music, art and culture are prominently featured in activities, which include drumming, dancing and tending to a vegetable garden.

Participants will also travel to the Kingdom of Oyotunji African Village in Beaufort County, S.C. There they’ll get to see some of what they learned in camp in the real world.

Dennis Holmes, director of the Family Life Center, said the camp fills a need in Smithfield’s African-American community. “That culture is not being put to our young people enough,” he said. “Everyone wants Jordans (basketball sneakers) and jeans.”

The camp is a family affair. Holmes’ sister, Beverly Wallace, who is a professor at a seminary in Atlanta, came up with most of the activities. She said the program was designed to intervene in what she calls the “school-to-prison pipeline” that many young black boys are funneled through.

“If they have a sense of who they are, their rich heritage, their sense of self-efficacy, I think that would hopefully spark something within them,” Wallace said.

The camp also includes trips to local libraries and historic societies, where participants will study the history of the black community in the Smithfield area.

But Wallace said she also wants to talk about the issues facing the community today, including high rates of incarceration.

Advocates hope the camp will also give a boost to the Family Life Center, which has struggled with declining enrollment and cuts to social programs that helped fund it. Many parents who once used the center for daycare stopped going when subsidies were cut.

“Gradually, the money dried up and parents weren’t able to pay for the afternoon custodial shift,” said James Gibson, a Smithfield resident who helped raise money for the camp. “It was my feeling that maybe a camp would be a way to get young people involved in Family Life again.”

Gibson and Family Life Center co-founder Sam Yard were members of an evangelical and ministry group called the Brotherhood of St. Andrew. When Yard passed away, the brothers came up with a way to honor his memory: helping the Family Life Center. They were intrigued by Wallace’s ideas and decided to split the costs of paying the counselors.

“I think Dr. Wallace has a unique experience in finding what young African-Americans need,” said Gibson, who is white.

Wallace said she doesn’t expect kids to understand everything they hear about in camp right away. But she wants to spark their curiosity about who they are and the challenges they face.

“As my husband used to say, ‘Put something in their pocket so when they want to look at it, they can,’ ” she said.