Summer camps are back, and better than ever

Trades camps are returning to Midland County this summer.

Organized by the Midland County Educational Service Agency (ESA), the Career and Technical Education (CTE) summer camps provide an opportunity for middle school and high school students to explore the trades and other career pathways. 

The CTE camps are financially sustainable, so they will continue to be around for years to come.“All of them are connected to business partners we have and all of them are camps, not school,” says Don Johnson, director of career and technical education at the Midland County ESA.  “… They have to be fun, they have to be hands-on, and they have to be real-world.”

Ever since its inception in 2014, the programming has continued to expand annually.

“We’ve continued to build every year and now we’re kind of maxed out. We’ve used every week of the summer,” says Johnson.

This year, there are now two “Find Your Future” camps, where students can dabble in several career fields over two days. Another notable offering is the “Starting at Square One Trades Camp.” During this four-day camp, students get hands-on experience in welding, carpentry, electrical, heavy equipment operation, and more. Other CTE camp options include automotive, culinary, healthcare, business, and math.

All camps relate to a high school opportunity students could have. In some cases, the high school program teachers will be leading the camps, alongside people working in the industry. All camps relate to a high school opportunity students could have. In some cases, the high school program teachers will be leading the camps, alongside people working in the industry. 

“We’re really trying to connect this from middle school all the way through high school,” says Johnson. “This gives them a little commitment to get a little taste of it, to see if it’s what they want to do, and then potentially do that.”

There are also camp offerings in healthcare, automotive, culinary, business, and math.The Starting at Square One Trades Camp both filled up within a week, but Johnson and the business partners are committing to at least doubling the capacity of the camps. Once the logistics of that are sorted out, people will be taken off the waitlist and registered. To keep the group sizes small for the most interactive and safe experience, students will be rotated through activities. 

COVID-19 precautions include screenings, masks, social distancing, handwashing breaks, boxed lunches, and the use of a large, outdoor tent to assemble everyone. If the situation changes, the Midland County ESA will change with it. They were able to run the camps last year; Johnson says that students followed the guidelines with no issues.

“[Students] were so appreciative and so cooperative [last year] because there was this experience that they could get out and do, and I think we’re seeing some of that this year with the increased demand for all of these things,” says Johnson.

While the Midland County ESA would love to fill the program with students in this region, historically, the programs have not filled with Midland students alone. So, the programs were opened up to the nation. 

“I’ll be honest, it scares me,” says Johnson, laughing. “It went crazy on Facebook. We’ve gotten calls from as far away as North Carolina. We actually have someone who has signed up from Tennessee. … What it says — and it’s kind of sad — is that there aren’t these kinds of opportunities out there.”

Students have the opportunity to use heavy machines.The goal is to expose students to different opportunities. About 10 years ago, the Midland County ESA conducted a study to look at career and technical education in Midland County.

“One of the findings that came out of it was that 65% of students and parents indicated that their largest barrier to taking a career in technical education program in high school was not knowing what their opportunities were,” says Johnson. He says that’s still a significant barrier today.

The camp experiences are all hands-on. Students of the "Starting at Square One" camp can try out welding, electrical, carpentry, and more.Johnson says the most rewarding part of running these camps is seeing a student discover what they want to do (or not do). One student, who had been through multiple camps, came to mind. He told Johnson, “I figured it out, I know what I want to do — I want to be an electrician.”

“It gave me goosebumps, says Johnson. “That is the most rewarding thing — when you see kids, (when) that the lightbulb turns on, and they’re just like, ‘this is what I want to do.’ … As soon as they find that thing, they get energized and they start working harder, and it matters to them. And I think that’s something that as a society, we don’t do a very good job with.”

These camps are financially sustainable — meaning, they don’t rely on donations or school district funding — so they will continue to be around for years to come. To learn more about the camps or to sign up, visit the Midland County ESA’s website.

Read more articles by Crystal Gwizdala.

Crystal Gwizdala grew up in the Tri-Cities and enjoys broadcasting all the positive change happening in Midland. As Assistant Editor for Catalyst Midland, her favorite topics are environment, wellness, mental health, and the arts. As a human, Crystal is a serial hobbyist: hiking, drawing, yoga, and playing music. Her work can be seen in The Detroit Free Press, Midland Daily News, and The Delta Collegiate. To see what Crystal’s up to, you can follow her on Twitter @CrystalGwizdala.