By Jill Warren Lucas
Ten years ago, citizens in rural Haywood County, N.C., located about 30 miles west of Asheville near the Tennessee line, took notice of a group of children who seemed to be out of step with their peers.
The parents of these children, many of whom were either unemployed or worked multiple jobs to make ends meet, could not afford the summer enrichment opportunities available to children of more affluent families. Some did not speak English and were reluctant to ask for help.
“We knew we had to do something to meet their needs,” says Lin Forney, a former Pigeon Community Multicultural Center volunteer who launched and still runs its diverse and affordable summer camp. “It wasn’t right that some children received so much when others were falling through the cracks.”
Children who did not participate in some sort of enrichment program – indeed, who likely spent the summer at home in front of a TV or gaming console – were not as ready for school as classmates who were engaged in organized summer learning, Forney says.
That first summer, 17 students enrolled in the camp, which balances academic instruction with weekly field trips and play time. This summer, 57 youth participated.
Children ages 5-15 are grouped in one of three clusters by age and grade level. Many return year after year and, once they turn 16, are welcomed back as counselors.
“They want to stay involved and give back,” says Forney, whose own 16-year-old son spent his first summer working at the camp he’d attended for a decade. “Some help the youngest children, while others tutor children in math and reading. They continue learning, too, about how to take care of children and figure out all sorts of workplace skills.”
The teens earned a small stipend for their service, but money is tight at the nonprofit program. Families pay $300 for 10 weeks of camp, including meals and outings. The fee barely covers costs.
“The students that we serve, many of their parents really struggle to come up with that,” Forney says. “We’re not here to make money. We’re here to help the families as much as we can.”
Individual philanthropists and organizations help to provide scholarships, especially for families with multiple children who might otherwise have to pick and choose which ones get to attend.
Providing for the least of these is a cornerstone of Pigeon Community Multicultural Center, which is housed in what was the only elementary school to serve African-American children in Waynesville before desegregation. Forney attended the school as a child and her grandparents helped to raise money for its construction in 1958.
“They saw the need for a better facility and, hopefully with that, a better education,” she says. “Honestly, it was a draw for me to help build a program there. The vision for the community, then and now, is to make things better for all our children.”
In keeping with its social justice roots, the highlight of the summer camp experience is a trip either the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta or the International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro.
“That in itself is a gigantic learning experience,” Forney says. “We do a full lesson plan of civil rights and black history. They learn about Dr. King in public school, but here they get to see how all the pieces fit together.”
Aquilinia Ramirez’s oldest son, Jonathan, now 17, attended the program until he aged out. Her third grader, Marcos, enjoyed his third year as a camper this summer.
“They have a lot of good things in the program, like teach reading and math – and how to eat vegetables,” says the Waynesville mother. “He didn’t like eating them at home, but he enjoyed working in the garden. Taking care of the plants and watching vegetables grow changed everything.”
Ramirez appreciates the support at her kitchen table, but she is especially grateful that her 9-year-old is becoming more engaged reader. “They had some tutors who really helped him. He’s not quite on grade level, but he’s getting there,” she says. “He just started back at school, and he has a positive attitude. He likes his teachers, he has friends in class, and he’s ready for the work.”
The program requires that parents contribute 10 hours of service (per camper) in support of the program – not just to help stretch a tight budget but also to show their children that it’s worth working for things that have value.
“They might help in the classroom or in the kitchen or with our fundraisers, which help to supplement the program,” Forney says. “Among the best experiences we have are the family meals, where attendance is required. It’s a potluck and, because of the diversity of our families, might mean that you’re eating something you’ve never tried before. Or you might sit down and talk with someone who does things very differently.”
Children perform a program to demonstrate new skills, and guest speakers – such as the new CEO of the local hospital and leaders of service programs – engage in conversations about community needs.
“We’re not one of those camps where all parents have to do is drop their kids off,” Forney says. “We want them all to develop a sense of ownership in our program. We want parents to feel empowered, to know that help is out there.”
Forney says many parents are surprised to realize that they can help their children to be more successful in school, even if it’s just by modeling the camp’s expectations of daily reading and courtesy.
“Parents are happy when they see their children’s reading and math skills improve,” she says. “More than anything, we see that their self-esteem has been built up. They learn new things, including that it’s OK to make mistakes and try again.”
Forney says the collaborative nature of camp also helps to build fast friendships that continue in school – a setting where social cliques can to dominate and limit contact with new or different people.
“I think that’s a big plus for them. It’s good to learn that you may have been wrong about another culture,” she says. “And not just for the students but the parents as well. It all comes back to our top priority, which is the learning process. When you are open to new things, your opportunities grow.”