Think back to early June. The final school bell rings and thousands of local children race down the school halls. Their minds are filled with plans for the summer: overnight camping trips, going to the beach, summer camp adventures and exploring mountain rivers, lakes and trails.
But for some local children, summer means sitting inside because there is no adult supervision, no transportation to take them anywhere and not much to do. A trip to the mountains, only 20 minutes away, might as well be a trip to the moon.
Seven years ago, Children First/Communities in Schools (CF/CIS) started a summer camp program to serve rising third through fifth graders living in Pisgah View, Deaverview and Woodridge Apartments; two public housing and one low-income community. This six-week summer camp, which is held Mon.-Thurs. from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., is completely free of charge and provides all transportation for children enrolled or on the waiting list.
This summer the Children First/CIS Summer Camp provided more than 50 children with outdoor adventures, including swimming lessons and opportunities to learn experientially about natural sciences. They went whitewater rafting, mountain biking, ziplining, horseback riding, hiking, swimming in pools, rivers and lakes and overnight camping.
According to a Johns Hopkins study of Baltimore Public Schools, low-income youths “lose more than two months in reading achievement” over summer vacation, while their middle-class counterparts make small gains. To help alleviate this summer learning loss, CF/CIS summer campers participated in creative literacy activities that included writing nature plays, keeping journals and completing personal summer reading lists.
For many of these children, their worlds consist of bus rides back and forth to school and trips into town for errands. The mountains, rivers and waterfalls that many locals visit on a regular basis are an unattainable world to children in families without transportation or financial resources.
Earlier this summer, a Children First/CIS summer camper named Betina looked out the window of the camp bus and pointed to the mountain side. She asked her counselor, “What are those?” The counselor asked “What?” Betina said, “Those green things… are those trees?” The counselor responded, “Yes they are, and we are going there.”
“Summer Camp is an invaluable learning experience” says Barbara Norton, CF/CIS Summer Camp and Learning Center Coordinator. “There are so many wonderful opportunities we provide that our children may never have a chance to experience. It is a wonderful time of discovering the world around them. We never know what seeds will grow, we’re just here to plant the seeds.”
Summer camp also provides new experiences. New can be exciting, but it can also be challenging. Many children face fears they may not have known they had. Eight-year-old Teiana was afraid to go rafting. She wasn’t a confident swimmer and had never been on the river before. The CF/CIS counselors and staff at French Broad Rafting Expeditions talked to her and made sure she knew she was safe. Teiana held on tightly as the raft careened down the river. She had a huge smile on her face as she shouted, “I’m having a great time!’” At the end of summer camp, counselors asked for her favorite experience and she said rafting.
Many of the CF/CIS Summer Campers had never been near a horse. When they visited Horse Sense of the Carolinas, some of the children acted like they grew up on a horse, while others were more hesitant. Lisa is a rising fourth grader who was initially timid around the horses, but gradually grew more comfortable around them. She gathered up her courage and got on a horse to ride, but only made it down the hill before she had to get down because she was so nervous. Instead of cowering, she stayed in the ring with the trainers as they guided the other children around on their horses. She was heard saying, “I’m proud of myself for trying! Maybe I’ll be a horse trainer someday.”
A strong component of the CF/CIS Summer Camp is swimming lessons. Not only do the children have fun, but it is an invaluable and potentially life-saving skill. Hope is a rising third grader who was not confident about swimming; she refused to even get in the pool. Melanie, a Gesher Teen from the Jewish Community Center, noticed Hope sitting alone. Before long, the two of them spent the whole afternoon practicing swim strokes and learning to float. Now Hope is a strong, confident swimmer and spends every moment she can playing in the water.
Now it’s 8:30 a.m. in late August. The first school bell rings as children return to their classrooms. The teacher asks, “What did you do this summer?” A Children First/CIS summer camper raises his hand; his face lights up as he tells his classmates about flying through the air on a Navitat zipline, rafting down a river, discovering a waterfall, sleeping in a tent, riding a horse and learning to swim. This was one summer that he didn’t have to spend alone and indoors, with the mountains as distant as the moon.
Children First/Communities In Schools of Buncombe County is a local non-profit that provides programs to economically disadvantaged children and families. These include: Family Resource Center at Emma, Latino Outreach, Learning Centers, CIS Success Coordinators, Project POWER/AmeriCorps and advocacy. Children First’s mission is to empower children and their families to reach their full potential through advocacy, education and services.
The organization would like to thank the community partners who helped make Children First/CIS Summer Camp possible: Trinity Episcopal Church, Cathedral of All Souls, French Broad Rafting Expeditions, Navitat Canopy Tours, the Jewish Community Center, YMCA, Horse Sense of the Carolinas, Asheville Tourists, Asheville Pizza and Brewing, Sherry Hjelvik, Asheville Youth Mission, Trips for Kids, Animal Haven and Echo View Farm.
The mission of Communities In Schools is to surround students with a community of support, empowering them to stay in school and achieve in life. To find out more go to www.childrenfirstbc.org.