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Camp St. Vincent caters to Baltimore's homeless youth

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From the outside, Camp St. Vincent looks like many other summer camps. There are crafts and reading along with plenty of time to play outside, and campers beat the heat with a dip in the pool. But the reality of these kids’ everyday lives is anything but carefree.

Camp St. Vincent, a free summer day camp at Patterson Park, has been serving homeless children ages 5 through 12 from Baltimore City and Baltimore County for more than 100 years. The eight-week camp, which is a program of St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore in partnership with Baltimore City’s Department of Recreation and Parks, is specifically designed for children living in shelters and transitional housing.

Tamika Harrison learned about Camp St. Vincent through Sarah’s Hope, an emergency shelter for women and children, and decided to send her 7-year-old son, Jahmal.

“I see a lot of little changes in him. He’s getting along better with other children, and it’s given him self-confidence and independence,” she says. “The best part is he’s gotten better at math and reading. He jumped in the pool the other day. … I’m really happy to see him enjoying himself.”

More than 380 children are homeless each night in Baltimore, according to statistics from St. Vincent de Paul. According to Teresa Eaton, director of communications for the nonprofit organization, children can lose up to two months of reading and math skills during summer break. The rate is twice as high among homeless children, which is why the staff at Camp St. Vincent works to help prevent summer learning loss through a structured reading and math curriculum.

More than 80 percent of campers maintained or increased their reading level last year and 85 percent maintained or increased their math skills, according to the results of tests at the beginning and end of camp.

Mixed in with an agenda of art, sports, music, dance and field trips are activities like a reading challenge and daily “Fast Facts” math instruction.

“What makes us unique is that we’re one of the only camps exclusively catering to homeless children in the city, while combining that academic and artistic side,” says camp director Vena Carter.

But to campers like 10-year-old Zarie Avery, Camp St. Vincent amounts to summer fun.

“I like it a lot. My favorite part was going swimming with my friends and all the counselors. We had fun in the pool,” she says. “It also helped me with math and reading. And I did art and dance. It was fun.”

Other elements of Camp St. Vincent include cultural enrichment through weekly trips to local destinations like the Maryland Zoo, National Aquarium and Hippodrome Theatre, as well as psycho-social support.

“Homeless youth have social and emotional damage,” says Eaton. “They move up to four times a year, so there’s a curriculum designed to address those issues. There’s a weekly theme, such as friendship, problem-solving, family dynamic and knowing yourself and your community.”

Each weekday, more than 100 children are transported by bus from various shelters and housing programs to camp, where they receive a free breakfast and lunch.

Many staff members are teachers on summer break and high school students volunteer as camp counselors.

“Another reason we do this is for the relationships the kids can form with adults and so they’re able to have role models of all ages,” says Eaton. “It’s something we pride ourselves on.”

Volunteer counselor Sydney White, 17, says she’s learned valuable lessons at Camp St. Vincent.

“It’s taught me a lot about myself,” she says. “It’s so good to see the kids happy and full of life, especially when you know they’re going through difficult times.”

As a camp counselor, Sydney is assigned to a group of four campers and works with them on their math and reading skills.

“We’re there to get their heads in the game and support them,” she says. “Our job is to let them have fun, while still getting an education.”

Camp St. Vincent receives annual support from individuals, church groups, corporations and private foundations. It costs about $38 per day to sponsor a child to attend camp.

“Our intent is not to have these kids come back next summer because it means they’re in permanent housing,” says Eaton. “It’s always bittersweet when they come back.”

For information about sponsoring a camper or to view a wishlist of donations, go to vincentbaltimore.org.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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