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Thursday, July 27, 2017 12:09 am

Closing the summer gap

Camp Compass makes learning fun

Counselor Torie Faulkner working with a group of Camp Compass kids.


“If you don’t want to come to Camp Compass, that’s too bad for you because we have a lot of fun here,” said Donovan, a fifth-grader attending the free six-week summer program serving low-income students from kindergarten to fifth grade Monday through Friday, administered by the nonprofit Compass for Kids at Ridgley Elementary School on North Eighth street.

A small team of licensed teachers provides instruction for the kids from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. every day, with a focus on math and reading. According to the National Summer Learning Association, most students lose two months of math skills over the summer, while low-income students specifically lose between two and three months of reading skills as well. Summer learning loss during elementary school years accounts for two-thirds of the achievement gap by the time students reach ninth grade.

“That’s the reason we’re here, to help them with the academic support,” said Compass for Kids executive director Molly Berendt, “but if we just did the academics it would seem like summer school, so we make it a really fun camp.”

To this end, on most afternoons from 1 to 3 p.m. different organizations from the community arrive to lead the students in enrichment activities, based around a weekly theme. One recent theme was “healthy living,” which brought visits from a yoga instructor who led the kids through some basic poses, representatives of genHkids, who provided information on exercise and healthy eating, and martial arts instructor John Geyston, who imparted some basic karate moves and philosophy. “Most of these community members are very generous and donate their time,” said Berendt. Once a week there is a trip to the Nelson Center for swimming. “That’s usually the highlight for the kids, they love swimming,” according to Berendt. Also once a week the campers go on a field trip, which is usually coordinated with that weekly theme. “They love getting to go new places and experience new things,” Berendt said. For healthy living week the field trip was to HSHS St. John’s Hospital, where the campers took part in “Operation Kid Clinic,” each creating a personalized doll which they then learned to examine using a stethoscope, blood pressure cuff and thermometer.

A community volunteer helps a camper with a reading assignment.

A typical day at Camp Compass begins with breakfast followed by a brief orientation before breaking into morning class groups. The day IT visited, the fourth and fifth-grade math students were studiously calculating perimeters while their first and second-grade counterparts played a math game called “Take Four and Add,” with a deck of cards. The kids were well behaved and attentive, with one teacher offering future “iPad time” as positive reinforcement. Meanwhile, one reading class took turns reading a story about Johnny Appleseed out loud, and later those kids built “Johnnys” with apple juice box bodies, applesauce heads, raisin shoes and straw arms, all topped off with a construction paper head-skillet, a nutritious art project which they later ate during lunch. Also on the healthy living theme, another class read an essay together about the ways people in different countries go about getting their nutrition based on climate and availability.

The Compass program was founded in 2011 by Berendt as a ministry of Douglas Avenue United Methodist Church, starting as an after-school program for students at Dubois elementary school. After a successful first year, it became a program of the Family Service Center and, after receiving pilot funding from the United Way, was able to expand and serve additional schools. In 2013, the first Camp Compass summer program started and in 2016 it left FSC and became an independent nonprofit, adopting the Compass for Kids name. “This is our fifth year doing Camp Compass but it’s our second year as our own independent organization,” Berendt pointed out.

Camp Compass kids hard at work on a group project.

In previous summers, Camp Compass typically served 80 kids, but this summer they increased that number to 100 after receiving new grant money (120 students are currently enrolled, with average attendance of between 80 and 90 per day). “This is the second time we’ve done a six-week camp,” said Berendt. “Six weeks and a hundred kids, that’s our biggest ever.”

“The reason why we have this program is to keep our brain going during the summer, but it’s also really fun,” said fifth-grade student Courtney, who hopes to attend Lincoln Magnet School in the fall. “My favorite thing this summer so far was when a dog came here from APL for ‘living things’ week. It looked like a Labrador, it was nice. It was a girl.”

Donovan said that his favorite thing so far this summer was learning how to divide whole numbers by decimals. “I don’t always enjoy math in regular school but I like it here,” he said. “My favorite subject is usually gym.” He also said he enjoyed a project where he and the other campers made a working volcano with baking soda and vinegar.

Community volunteer Elizabeth Farrar teaches campers some yoga poses.

Fifth-grade camper Maurvelle has been attending Camp Compass for the past few years. He said his favorite activity is swimming and that he appreciates the structure the camp provides. “If I wasn’t coming here I would just stay home and do what I need to do and then go on my phone.” He says that most of what they learn in class he already knows from school but that it doesn’t hurt to review.

For Ta’Coreyia, another fifth-grader, this is her second and final year at Camp Compass and it has been a memorable one. “There was one lady who came in with miniature horses named Winnie, Bailey and Jasper. She told us to ‘Just say whoa to bullying.’” She was also thrilled when Henson-Robinson Zoo staff visited with a possum, a turtle and an owl. “I really like the owl; they taught us the owl’s head goes all the way around 360 in a circle.”

After a full morning of classes followed by lunch, it was time for 30 minutes of recess in order to “get the wiggles out” (in the words of the staff). The campers broke into two groups, with one venturing outdoors to brave the sweltering heat and climb on a jungle jim, swing on swings, throw Frisbees and footballs, jump rope, and perform oddly topical hand-clapping chant games (“I don’t wanna go to Mexico no more-more-more / There’s a big fat policeman at my door-door-door”), while the indoor group ran around the Ridgely gymnasium shooting baskets, kicking kickballs and swinging hula hoops. This was clearly an energetic, well-nourished group of youngsters.

John Geyston, of John Geyston’s Mixed Martial Arts Academy, imparts Eastern wisdom to the kids.

This is not always the case for lower-income children and the Compass for Kids “backpack program” is an attempt to address this. “We do this at both our after-school programs and here,” explained Berendt. “It is designed to address food insecurity.” As part of camp, kids receive breakfast and lunch every day and a snack every day (because it is held at Ridgely Elementary School, District 186 includes Camp Compass as part of its summer food service program). The Backpack program, funded by HSHS St. John’s Hospital, provides meals for the campers to be taken home and eaten over the weekend. “The purpose is to make sure the kids are getting to eat between when camp lets out on Friday and resumes on Monday,” Berendt said

The Camp Compass staff is a dedicated group, all of whom come across as devoted to the well-being of the campers. Vicki Martin is about to enter grad school and has been working as a counselor for Camp Compass every summer since her junior year in high school. “The kids are mostly what keep me coming back,” she said. “During my first year, one day I was serving the kids snacks and I was leaning over one of the girls to pour her a glass of milk and I overheard her telling one of the other kids that she was really excited that her family was moving into a hotel because that meant that she got to go to the pool every day. That kind of broke my heart. I knew the kind of population that we were working with but to actually hear it from the kids is a completely different thing.” Martin says it is satisfying to see the kids grow up year after year. “I get to see some of the third-graders coming into their own and becoming their own little people and I also get to see my fourth-graders from last year and how much they’ve progressed. One of my kids last year had trouble focusing, so much so that you couldn’t even have a conversation with him because he couldn’t keep eye contact with you. Even when he was looking at you it was like he was looking past you and now I can talk to him a lot more than I could.”

Counselor Vicki Martin discusses nutrition with a camper.

Teacher Amy Anderson finds working with the Camp Compass campers both difficult and rewarding. “My interactions with the kids are really good,” she said. “There’s challenges every moment but that keeps me on my toes and creates moments where we can help them be aware of their behaviors and how they can then make better choices. There are teachable moments every second so we’re all pretty worn out by the end of the day. It’s hard work, more than some people might think.”

Torie Faulkner is a counselor new to the program. “This is my first summer here. I love it,” she said. “I am getting a lot closer to the kids than I expected I would in such a short time. It’s going to be so sad to leave.” She said it has been an eye-opening experience working with lower-income students. “In the past, I’ve spent a lot of time with privileged kids who have more opportunities. I love the idea that Camp Compass is free for them and they get all these opportunities they might not have otherwise. Not all of the kids understand why they are doing all this stuff but in the long run I think it is definitely going to benefit them.”

“We are the lucky kids,” said camper Ta’Coreyia, “cause this camp would usually cost, like, $100 but Miss Molly raises money to keep it going and she does not have to do that.”
For more information on Compass for Kids, visit http://www.compass4kidz.com/.

Healthy eating is an essential part of a successful day at Camp Compass.

Contact Scott Faingold at sfaingold@illinoistimes.com.


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