Summer camp is more daydream than reality for children who sleep in abandoned buildings and cars, or shuttle from shelters to motels to friends’ couches.
There are 4,700 homeless students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and less than 25 percent graduate, said Annabelle Suddreth, executive director of A Child’s Place. The local nonprofit works with Charlotte-area homeless children, who are often behind in their studies and suffer emotional problems.
A select few get to attend the nonprofit’s summer day camp called My Place. The eight-week camp costs $175 a week per child and $1,400 for the summer.
That’s why the camp applies to The Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund, which has given A Child’s Place money to send two homeless children to My Place this summer.
The camp has grown from seven students in 2006 to 150 this year, and campsites are at Shamrock Gardens and Hidden Valley elementary schools, and Westerly Hills Academy.
At My Place, they don’t use the word homeless.
“We call it a club,” Suddreth said. “This is not who they are. This is just a situation they’re in.”
A day at My Place
A typical day at My Place starts with a hot breakfast and “celebration time,” where campers “shake off any worries or concerns,” Suddreth said.
Then they spend several hours working on math and literacy, in groups of five with a teacher.
Next is a hot lunch, followed by an hour of quiet time, during which campers can read a book or sleep.
“Because our children have unstable living conditions, they don’t always sleep at night,” Suddreth said.
In the afternoon, they take swimming lessons at Johnson C. Smith University’s aquatic center with volunteers from SwimMAC Carolina, a local competitive swim club.
Children who initially need to be coaxed into the water finish camp jumping off the Olympic diving blocks at the deep end.
Then come the field trips to farms and places like Reed Gold Mine and Discovery Place.
Social workers spend afternoons with the children and work with parents to move toward stable housing.
Three years ago, one camper was overweight, self-conscious and socially withdrawn, Suddreth said. That camper agreed to speak at the finale dinner.
“He spoke about how meaningful the camp experience had been for him,” Suddreth said. “Having others believe in him helped him believe in himself. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
Another camper didn’t speak English, so bilingual social workers helped him.
He was the age of a second-grader, but prior to moving to North Carolina, he’d never attended school. By the end of camp, the young man was enthusiastic, confident and excelling in his school work. That fall, he placed into fourth-grade math.
‘It gives them hope’
Though A Child’s Place works with 2,500 students during the school year, only the most needy attend camp.
The camp also provides summer jobs for teachers, janitors and cafeteria workers. CMS bus drivers pick up and drop off the campers.
Alex Fernandez Crenshaw started teaching tae kwon do at the camp after volunteering as a lunch buddy at Billingsville Elementary through A Child’s Place.
He wanted to teach the children self-defense and self-discipline, while explaining that violence doesn’t solve problems.
“It’s very easy to lose your innocence in their environments, doing what is cool,” Crenshaw said. “If they see they can have a good life ... it gives them hope.”
Suddreth said the children’s resiliency is amazing.
“Our goal is to give them an education,” she said. “We just want to give them a chance.”