No kid wants to go to summer school….after a school year spent in classrooms, who wants to spend more time at a desk? But most kids — and their parents — would love a fun, safe, exciting camp experience for the summer, and if they learn something too, so much the better.
The YMCA’s Camp Phoenix does exactly that. Kids keep up their learning over the long summer months, while having a great time in a fun, caring, nurturing environment.
Camp Phoenix started 13 years ago and was originally a partnership with the Junior League of Birmingham. It grew quickly past the Junior League’s capacity to handle it, and through connections with the Carls YMCA became a Y program.
That first year, they had 75 kids at one site in Pontiac and another 150 more on the waiting list…now, it serves 120 kids in Detroit, 90 in Flint and 490 in Pontiac.
Camp Phoenix is wildly successful for several reasons, but one major key to success is that they make connections with the entire family. Many of these children have experienced some academic or behavioral struggles in school. At Camp Phoenix, teachers are required to make 3 positive connections with parents during the 6-week session; that means mentioning some kind of progress or achievement to the parents at least three times.
They also have a social worker on staff so that any needs that families might have, or barriers to attending the session, can be addressed.
“If kids are operating on a survival basis, they’re not in a place they can learn — they are not growing,” says Lisa Senac, Camp Phoenix director. The goal is to make sure campers can get their resource needs taken care of so that they can learn and thrive.
The camp also introduces kids to what are common experiences for many, but for children in challenging situations they are brand new — things like going to the beach or to the movies. One little girl actually started crying on the movie field trip when the lights went down — she’d never been to the theater and was not prepared for the loud noise and darkness.
Teachers weave those experiences into the curriculum — math at the beach, language arts at the movies, for example. Besides that benefit, exposure to these novel experiences gets children’s brains firing and primes them for more and better learning.
Everything comes fro what the community wants, versus a top-down “we’ll tell you what you need” approach. Teachers and staff do a focus group with parents and community members before the session starts to get ideas and understand each community’s needs.
Of course, all this learning is not going to happen if there is not fun and enjoyment as well. Teachers start decorating their spaces well before the session, transforming them from bland classrooms to inviting, invigorating spaces. Kids get tickets for making positive choices, and can redeem them for prizes.
Because many families have multiple children, or multiple generations living together, Camp Phoenix services a broad age range. There’s care for kids as young as 3, all the way up to a job readiness program for young adults 21 and younger.
Another way they empower the kids is to allow them to give as well as receive. Each year, kids choose a cause to raise funds and support. This year, they are raising money for the family of a Camp Phoenix camper –their father, a roofer, fell off a roof and died while working. They’ve done a car wash and other projects to raise money.
Camp Phoenix does a lot of good for their campers every summer — it’s six weeks that impacts their entire lives. And it’s not only the students and their families who benefit. “When you go in there, you can just see it — you’re feeling all that goodness,” says Lisa. “This is the kind of feeling you want to have.”