Ypsilanti-area youth summer camps gear up for mix of virtual and in-person programming

From a virtual program centered around writing to outdoor programs with an academic enrichment focus, Ypsilanti-area summer camps are finding new ways to engage with local youth.

Although COVID-19 caused some camps to cancel last year's programming, most are back this year either in a virtual format or an in-person format with COVID-19 precautions. Camp offerings range from the Ann Arbor YMCA's Camp New Heights in Ypsilanti Tonwship to free playground camps offered by Washtenaw County to theater-themed camps offered by the Professional Youth Theater of Michigan and Center State Productions. We touched base with staff from three different summer camp programs to talk about what's on tap for summer 2021. 

Parkridge Summer Learning Experience

Washtenaw Community College (WCC) offers summer camps at Parkridge Community Center on Ypsilanti's Southside each summer. Last year organizers created a hybrid model, partly virtual and partly in person, but the summer camp will return to more of a traditional model this summer.

Participants in Parkridge Community Center's 2019 summer camp.
"We're definitely excited for this year to be in person the whole time, because we believe kids benefit most from in-person instruction," says Liz Garaba, WCC's manager of college and career readiness.

The program is called a "Summer Learning Experience" because the full-day camp will offer four hours of academic enrichment every morning Monday through Thursday. The camp will be staffed by certified teachers, and organizers are aiming for a ratio of one adult to every three campers, with opportunities for one-on-one tutoring. Garaba says students will receive "over 3,000 hours of academic programming in six weeks."

"We know that because of COVID-19, students haven't been able to be in the classroom as much and need extra academic support," Garaba says.

Participants in Parkridge Community Center's 2019 summer camp.
Garaba says organizers are taking several steps to keep participants engaged with academics, including incentives for completing lessons. They're also taking time to do staff development, ensuring that staff are making their lessons interesting, fun, and project-based when possible.

"If staff are engaged and positive, students will tap into that energy," Garaba says. "Plus, staff are always asking the kids what they want to do, and that keeps them motivated."

Afternoons will be for more free-form fun activities, and each Friday will involve a field trip. Garaba says plans haven't been finalized, but potential field trip locations will include the Detroit Zoo, Henry Ford Museum, and Sky Zone trampoline park in Canton. 

Each week will have a different theme as well, from animals to transportation to "gross-out week," featuring slime and other icky activities.

Most activities will take place outdoors, masks are mandated for both youth and staff, and each day will start with a temperature check, in line with public health guidelines for COVID-19 prevention.

The camp is capped at 32 children this year, but that's not all bad, says Brandon Tucker, WCC's associate vice president of workforce and community development. For instance, it's much easier to coordinate a field trip for 32 children than 100.

"We have a big opportunity to impact a smaller cohort of students and will be able to do it in an intentional and intensive way," he says. "We'll really helm them from both an academic standpoint and with life skills."

More information on the Parkridge program can be found here. Anyone with additional questions may email Garaba at egaraba@wccnet.edu.

Inkstains Summer Writing Camps

Inkstains Summer Writing Camps, an offering of Eastern Michigan University's (EMU) Office of Campus and Community Writing, have been offering local youth the opportunity to express themselves through writing since they started in 2004.

The program previously served middle school and high school students but expanded to include children from third through sixth grade in 2019. In 2020, the program went 100% virtual, and will be held virtually again this year.

Participants in the 2019 Inkstains Summer Writing Camp.
Inkstains camp director Angela Knight says staff learned a lot from going virtual last year and they "hope to provide something that feels more like camp than school" in 2021.

Knight says going virtual allowed Inkstains to include young people who wouldn't have been able to make the commute to Ypsilanti in the past. 2020 participants came from places including the west side of Michigan and even New York.

The program expanded last year to offer a more social outlet called Signature Saturdays, held once a month for two hours from January through May as well.

"We wanted to offer both a creative outlet for students and an opportunity to socialize with each other," Knight says. "Writers tend to be introverted, and they were stuck at home on computers all the time."

This year's sessions will be shortened to a four-hour block because some participants are feeling burned out on virtual events, Knight says.

Knight says the first day of the virtual writing camp involves a lot of icebreakers. Each day will include a variety of writing prompts, and young people can volunteer to share what they wrote based on the prompts. Volunteers will also share "mini-lessons" on topics like developing characters, exploring forms of poetry, or adding conflict to a plot. Participants also control what kind of feedback they want.

"Maybe they only want to hear praise or only questions," Knight says. By the end of the week, their peers are giving more focused, constructive criticism, but always in a positive and supportive way.

A staple activity of the in-person writing camps was a "writing marathon" where participants wore matching T-shirts and walked around EMU's campus finding spots to sit and write.

Participants in the 2019 Inkstains Summer Writing Camp.
"Sometimes they had prompts for spots, and other times we just told them to think about what they were hearing and just sit and write," Knight says. 

In 2021, Inkstains used Google Earth to offer a virtual writing marathon, encouraging students to use various locations in Michigan and around the world as writing prompts.

Ann Blakeslee, EMU's director of campus and community writing and co-founder of YpsiWrites, says her daughter has participated in the Inkstains camps over several years. She says the students perceive the passion that their writing teachers bring to the camps.

"When I walk into the room, I feel all this energy around writing, and it's a cool thing," Blakeslee says. "At the end of the program, there's a big celebration where students read their writing, and it's a really positive, uplifting, and safe experience for students. It's just incredible how they share, the pride they feel, the self-confidence they build."

More information about Inkstains Summer Camps is available here.

County-sponsored Playground Camps and Rolling Hills Day Camp

Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation has traditionally hosted a number of summer camps in Ypsi and Ypsi Township, but it canceled all its summer camp offerings in 2020. This year, county-sponsored summer camps are mostly returning to their pre-pandemic form.

Participants in Washtenaw County's Rolling Hills Day Camp in 2019.
Karen Harris, camp director for the county's Playground Camp program, says the main difference is that camp capacities have been cut in half, from 70 campers at three sites to 30 children at two sites. Those sites will be Grace Fellowship Church House of Solutions in the Sugarbrook neighborhood of Ypsilanti Township and Christian Love Fellowship Church in Superior Township.
Participants in Washtenaw County's Rolling Hills Day Camp in 2019.
"The majority of activities will be outside, and kids are required to wear masks," Harris says. "We're also separating them into pods of 10, and they'll be with the same campers the entire duration."

Playground camps are free, and lunches are provided by Food Gatherers.

The county's Rolling Hills camp in Ypsilanti Township will also focus primarily on outdoor activities and will group participants into pods, with two counselors per 10-child pod. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, participants will go to the water park at Rolling Hills County Park, and other activities are planned for Tuesdays and Thursdays. 

Those other activities will include a visit from a naturalist who will lead activities like fishing and hiking. A new activity this year will be a visit from the Ypsilanti District Library's Bookmobile.

At the Rolling Hills camp, children pack their own lunches four days per week and then get a free hot-dog lunch from the water park's concession stand on Fridays. There is a cost for the Rolling Hills Day Camp but several scholarships are available. 

More information about Rolling Hills Day camp is available here, and more information about the Playground Camp program can be found here.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Rolling Hills Day Camp photos courtesy of Rachel Cortez/Rolling Hills County Park. Inkstains Summer Writing Camp photos courtesy of Inkstains Summer Writing Camp. Parkridge Community Center photos courtesy of Washtenaw Community College.
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