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Summer camp helps boys prepare for school, future

Summer camp helps boys prepare for school, future

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Summer camp helps boys prepare for school, future

By Mary Lee Downey | Aug. 20, 2009 {1069}

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Twenty-five boys, mostly between the ages of 10 and 12, are enjoying a day at Downtown Disney.

Patricia Hickman-Barber gives campers instructions before a fun afternoon at Downtown Disney. Photo by Mary Lee Downey. Photo #09-1291.

With matching t-shirts and huge smiles, they look like any other group out for a fun day on Disney property, but these kids are more than visiting tourists. They are part of the Sons of Thunder Summer Day Camp, a month-long interracial youth camp for boys in the Titusville, Fla., area.

The camp’s mission was to provide a safe outlet for the boys to productively expend their childhood energy and become better students in the process.

The program was held last year as a mini-week to gauge interest, according to Patricia Hickman-Barber, the camp’s executive director. After seeing success in that first small group, camp leaders applied for grants that could support a longer program this year.

With several of those grants, including $10,000 from the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society, camp organizers were ready to start. Pastors from Indian River City United Methodist Church, St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church and the non-denominational Christian Life Center went in search of an executive director and hired Hickman-Barber. The camp then began the process of checking with schools, churches and even scouring neighborhoods for boys to participate in the program, Hickman-Barber said. “We went anywhere boys that age hang out,” she said.

When the camp opened in mid-June with 25 students — the maximum number of children the camp could support on its budget — organizers had to turn students away, Hickman-Barber said. Families even contacted them days before the camp ended to see if their sons could participate. “The demand is there,” she says.

Getting a head-start

The typical camp day for the boys began on their doorstep. Every day they were picked up from home and transported to St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church. They had breakfast, and then at 9 a.m. they began a three-class rotation. They were taught reading and math skills and then had a class in Christian education. The camp’s theme was “Good Choices,” so the Beatitudes and Ten Commandments were taught in Bible class to help the boys learn how to make positive life decisions.

“We want to instill in them a love for themselves,” Hickman-Barber said.

The classes, she said, gave the students extra practice and reinforcement during the summer so they can excel during this school year and long-term, with the hope they’ll be less likely to drop out later on. She also hopes the kids will take what they learned and share it with family and friends, infusing some Biblical values into the community.

After the classes the boys played games, had lunch and then spent the afternoon in a fun recreational activity or with a motivational guest speaker.

“We’ve given them some new opportunities,” Hickman-Barber said, noting one boy who had never been to a swimming pool until he participated in the camp. “Now he’s the last one to get out.”

Campers enjoy an afternoon at Downtown Disney. Photo by Mary Lee Downey. Photo #09-1292.
There were also special days when the kids went off campus, visiting different places in the community and Central Florida — like Downtown Disney.

The kids say they like the special trips, but appreciate the class time, too. “I definitely like the field trips,” 10-year-old Timmy said. “But I like reading and math and actually getting a head-start ... and Bible study that tells us to read verses that deal with making good choices.”

Some of those good choices, he said, are “always tell the truth, obey your parents and listen to them.”

Eleven-year-old Jay agrees. “I like it,” he said about the camp. “It’s fun, and I’ve learned a lot about the Bible.”

The teaching style of the leaders is one reason the children seemed so engaged, said Melanie Gordon, the camp’s reading teacher. “We really expose them to different things,” she said, including computers, games and out-of-the-box ideas. “As long as it’s different, they are all ready to go for it.”

The camp also worked to stay connected with parents in the hopes they could keep their children engaged. The two certified teachers on staff met with parents for home visits, made phone calls and worked with the parents to give the boys the best options possible.

Parents appreciated the effort, Hickman-Barber says. “We had a family picnic over the Fourth, and parents were already asking, ‘How do I sign up for next year?’ ” she said.

This year’s grants covered transportation costs and materials, and any leftover funds will be used to keep in touch with the boys throughout the year. But more financial resources are needed to provide the camp again, Hickman-Baber said. Organizers will need to continue writing grants and securing funding from local churches and private donations.

“It’s been exhausting,” Hickman-Barber says of the camp. “But the benefits so outweigh (the challenges). If I could do this full-time, I would.”

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Downey is a freelance writer based in St. Cloud, Fla.