Nearly every weekday, all summer long, brothers Koby and Jayden wake up in a homeless shelter or hotel for the homeless in Albemarle, then hop in the car of teachers Janet Hartsell or Julie Busch and head to summer camp at the Stanly County Family YMCA.
Koby, a rising fifth-grader, and Jayden, a rising third-grader, were raised by grandparents until their grandfather died last year. Their grandmother had died the year before.
Now, the boys’ parents share custody. Both are homeless, and the boys bounce back and forth between shelters and motels each week.
Hartsell said she first met the boys when she was Koby’s kindergarten teacher, at Central Elementary in Albemarle. “He is such a wonderful kid, but he has had a life with some terrible losses,” she said. “It’s tragic to endure that much loss.”
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She and Busch, who also teaches at Central, couldn’t stand the thought of them enduring a long summer in the shelters.
So, with the boys’ parents’ approval, they signed them up for the 10-week summer camp. Weekday mornings, they pick them up, take them to the free community breakfast at Central Elementary and drop them off at the YMCA for camp days filled with swimming, games and field trips.
“We’ve seen the biggest change in them,” said Hartsell, a first-grade teacher.
“They were so excited the first day, but sleepy-eyed, definitely unaware of what it was going to be like,” she said. “But the next day we picked them up, and it was just precious. Their eyes were full of life, and they talked about everything they did.”
Koby and Jayden are attending camp through a scholarship from the Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund.
Stanly County Family YMCA is one of 14 camps that receive money from the fund, which sends children from low-income families across the region to summer camp.
Thanks to the generosity of readers, and corporate donations, more than 260 kids from low-income families are attending camps this summer. Last year’s campaign raised about $141,000.
This year, fund leaders hope to hit $150,000 in donations. So far, readers have given more than $114,700.
Russell and Sally Robinson, the fund’s honorary chairs, said they have been “touched by the number of people – friends and strangers alike – who have responded to our camp stories by sharing theirs with us and making donations to the Observer’s Summer Camp Fund.
“Others may need just a little reminder that the campaign will soon be over,” Sally Robinson said. “What we really need is donations from corporations and charitable funds.
“We must meet the campaign’s goal of $150,000 – even more would be better,” she said. “There are so many children in our community for whom a week at camp would be a life-changing experience.”
Last week was “superhero week” for Koby, Jaden and the rest of the 110 children attending the Stanly County camp, said Kellie Bigger, family services director. The camp honored local heroes, and firefighters, police officers, emergency medical technicians and sheriff’s department officers visited.
Bigger said the staff has come to love the brothers.
When they came in at the beginning of the summer wearing jeans, counselors and other staff bought them shorts and T-shirts so they could keep cool. Counselors have brought in grocery bags of food on Fridays to give the family sustenance over the weekend. Hartsell and Busch bought them swimsuits and towels for camp, and sneakers, too.
“It has been a beautiful thing to watch (the staff) process and respond to it,” Bigger said.
Hartsell said Koby is quiet and reserved and an avid reader. Hartsell and Busch supplied him with an armload of books when school got out in June – “enough so he could read the whole summer,” Hartsell said.
Jayden is animated and outgoing, and Hartsell said both boys get giddy when talking about camp. “They both want to talk at the same time. They’re so excited about all the things they’ve done during the day.”
At the top of their list are the “character beads” they earn for showing good character at camp. Both love swim time each day, and have become far stronger swimmers.
“They are so proud of their accomplishments,” Hartsell said.
Camp, she said, is helping expand the boys’ outlooks for their future.
“I think Koby would turn out to be a great counselor one day at the Y,” she said. “I told him, ‘You can have a job over there and help other boys and girls.’ ”
“I would like them to grow up and realize their potential,” she said, “and know that things can be different.”