The director who runs a camp for underprivileged children learned an important lesson about poverty when she attended the camp as a child.
“I realized I may not have very much money, but I could make a contribution that could help in some small way,” said Mary Rogers, executive director of Sherwood Forest camp in Lesterville, Missouri. She attended this camp, which serves children from low-income families and underserved communities in Missouri and Illinois, as a child from an impoverished family. Campers get involved in community service, regardless of their means.
“Think about the fact that most kids who grow up in low-income families, most of them get help. It puts kids and families on the receiving end,” Rogers said. “It’s a powerful game-changer in these kids’ lives to recognize that, ‘I have something I can do to help somebody else.’”
It made a big impression on Rogers. She says today’s campers continue this tradition of service, albeit in different ways from when she was a student many years ago.
More camp directors are realizing the benefit of service-learning experiences for young people during their summer programs. In a 2011 report, the American Camp Association found that nearly half of camps surveyed had incorporated community service or “good deed” programs into their curricula. The top projects conducted at camps are community clean-ups, food drives, recycling programs and volunteering with senior citizens and hospital patients.
Amy Barnett of Ladue, Missouri, founded an entire camp on this premise. She’s the director of K.A.R.E. Camp, which stands for Kindness Action Responsibility Education. Campers enroll for one week at a time, and it runs for eight weeks over the summer. Each day, they participate with a different nonprofit partner. For example, campers work the assembly line for the St. Louis Area Foodbank, creating boxes of food that will be shipped out to soup kitchens and food pantries. They also bring donations from home, and on the last day of the week, they organize a small fundraiser to help the organization or charity they’ve selected.
In the past, campers have put together a community cupcake war, a science fair, a slime sale and a carnival to raise funds.
“The kids came up with amazing ideas,” Barnett said. Last year they raised $6,000 selling stickers, baked goods and cups of lemonade. The funds were donated to charities chosen by the campers.
“For the kids, it’s really about learning that they can use their hands to do something now. They don’t have to wait,” she said. Barnett started the camp four years ago, when her own kids were getting older, but were still too young to be official volunteers for local nonprofits.
“It was hard to find opportunities for them to get involved in,” she said.
K.A.R.E. Camp is designed for boys and girls between 7 to 14 years old.
“My girls love the diverse project-oriented days,” said parent Maia Brodie. She said they come home understanding and knowing the world outside of their “bubble” as one where people and animals need their help.
“They learn that they have resources to give,” Brodie said. Her two daughters started attending when they were 8 years old, and this will be their third summer participating. Similarly, Sherwood Forest has a leadership training program that brings children back year after year and keeps them involved during the school year.
When the older campers brainstormed about the types of service projects they wanted to do, they thought about ways they could help younger campers, according to Jeff Wilson, program coordinator.
They wrote birthday cards for the campers who don’t get mail from home while they are at the sleep-away program. They also put together care packages for younger campers who might get homesick.
Others come early to get the campgrounds ready by deep-cleaning the kitchen, putting the garden together and wood chipping. Some stay after camp ends to help clean up and close for the season.
The community service component of the camp experience has become much more thought-out and intentional, Rogers said.
“It’s one thing if you grow up in a middle-income or privileged family, you obviously have something to share,” she said. The realization she had as a camper -- the one she wants to pass on to today’s kids -- is that she had something to offer, too. And so do they.