A symphony of laughter, shouts, and chants floated across a playground last week as three teams of children from the Ypsilanti area prepared to square off against each other in a friendly game of kickball.
The group of 84 children gathered on Aug. 10 at Community Center Park, 2000 E. Clark Rd. in Ypsi Township, for a kickball challenge to celebrate a summer of recreational and educational programming organized by Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation. All the children participated in the county's Summer Playground Program, a free two-month camp meant to entertain and enlighten children from underserved neighborhoods in the Ypsi area.
Since 2008, Washtenaw County has provided a summer experience for local disadvantaged children, but this year the county teamed up with Superior Township Parks and Recreation and Ypsilanti Community Schools to help boost participation.
Administrators from numerous municipal offices started meeting last fall to determine how they could strengthen the program to better serve the children and families who live in the surrounding communities. The meetings resulted in the decision to bring the Summer Playground Program to three sites in the West Willow, Sugarbrook, and MacArthur neighborhoods, as well as to forge partnerships with more than 30 local organizations and businesses.
"We want them to start off knowing that even though the neighborhood has a bad reputation ... we want them to feel comfortable about the playgrounds that they play in," says Summer Playground Program manager Latitia Sharp.
Enriching and educating
The Summer Playground Program's intention isn't just to babysit or keep children busy while they're out of school. Its ultimate goal is to provide children with some kind of enrichment over the summer by including an educational component in every activity. For instance, when children made tie-dye socks to wear at the kickball challenge, they learned how to mix colors to make a new color.
"The best part of working with kids is being able to teach them something and them not knowing they learned [because] they had fun doing it," says Superior Township Parks and Recreation director Juan Bradford.
Each day this year, the more than 150 children registered for the Summer Playground Program at all three sites received free meals and snacks provided through the state's Meet Up and Eat Up Summer Food Service Program, which is locally sponsored by Food Gatherers, and participated in games, crafts, presentations, and activities centered around a weekly theme.
Numerous other sponsors contributed money, goods, and time to this year's program. For example, additional food and drinks at the kickball challenge were provided by Fresh Thyme and the Willow Run Party Store. The Children's Literacy Network, SOS Community Services, and the Washtenaw County Public Health Department provided prizes for the event.
Campers' favorite theme seems to have been superhero week, which included visits from members of the Ypsilanti Township Fire Department, the Superior Township Fire Department, the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office, Huron Valley Ambulance, and the local Marine Corps League. That week of programming aimed to show children that emergency responders are their local heroes, so children don't think they only show up when something bad happens.
"Some of these kids, the only thing they see is the police drive up, they handcuff somebody, and they take them away and that's all they know," Bradford says.
Members of the fire departments talked about fire safety, showed off their uniforms and equipment, and stood at a distance to gently spray the children with a fire hose. Members of the sheriff's office let children sit in their squad cars and play with the flashing lights. Program participant Labron Powell, 8, said it was "shocking but fun" to meet the the members of the fire department and sheriff's office when they visited the Sugarbrook site.
The West Willow program at the Community Resource Center, 2057 Tyler Rd., and the MacArthur program at Superior Township Community Park, 1390 Stamford Rd., ran from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. this year. But the Sugarbrook program at Grace Fellowship Church House of Solutions, 1301 S. Harris Rd., tested a new model in which children started their day earlier at 9 a.m. with two hours of tutoring led by the Family Learning Institute and Washtenaw County's Foster Grandparent Volunteer Program. Sugarbrook's program also ended later, at 4 p.m., with a behavior management session to conclude the day.
Sugarbrook's tutoring component aimed to help children retain information they learned throughout the course of the previous school year, while the behavior management was meant to teach children how to handle emotions and how to resolve issues, according to Kathy Wyatt, executive assistant at the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office, which is heavily involved in the Summer Playground Program.
The children at all three sites also had access to books through interactions with the Ypsilanti District Library at least once a week. The library's bookmobile made a weekly visit to the Sugarbrook and West Willow sites, so the kids were able to check out a book if they had a library card or have a book read to them by the library staff. The MacArthur site was so close to the library's Superior Township branch that children were able to walk there to check out books and use the computers one day a week, as well as have a member of the library staff read to the children at the site another day a week.
Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation hopes to bring the full-day pilot program launched this year at the Sugarbrook site to the other sites next year.
Forging lasting relationships
This year's early planning also involved a rigorous interview process and background checks for the adult staff members, followed by a full week of training, including CPR and first aid. The administrators selected about 15 staff members who had previous experience working with children in an educational, recreational, or developmental setting, as well as a desire to give back to the community.
"I've noticed that the children, who [the staff] did not know prior to this program, have actually bonded with the staff and that's kind of what we were looking for. We were looking for role models that they can take when they leave the program," Sharp says.
Morgan Foreman, site coordinator for the Sugarbrook program, has enjoyed forming lasting relationships with the children and seeing firsthand how much they have grown and matured over the summer.
"I want them to always know that they have a confidant and a friend in me that they can come to," Foreman says. "That's important, especially in some of the situations that these kids face when they go home. So I've enjoyed watching them grow, learn, and learning from them. I've learned a lot from them."
Sage Heilner, 11, says the staff at the West Willow site taught her how to "be kind, be respectful, and be responsible." And many of the adults who are involved in the program said the kids taught them things, too.
Cara Easley, site coordinator for the West Willow Program, hoped to serve as a positive role model for the children, but she wasn't necessarily expecting to be impacted by them.
"These kids really showed me a lot about myself," Easley says. "I've learned to be more patient and more empathetic with the kids."
Patricia Tabb, site coordinator for the MacArthur program, wanted to get involved in the Summer Playground Program because it allows her to work with children, do community outreach, empower local youth, and promote living a healthy lifestyle right in her own neighborhood. Now known as "Miss Patty" to the young program participants she works with, she's also able to bring her own children to work with her.
"I think it has an enormous impact on the community just by providing food for the children, providing an outlet for the children, a source of family and community for the kids that are in communities where everyone is so separate," Tabb says.
"I think this is a phenomenal program and I hope there's funding and sponsors to keep it going for infinity."
Brianna Kelly is the embedded reporter for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.
All photos by Doug Coombe.