Summer camp for homeless helps students through transition

As pedestrians scurried through the sunshine that bathed Patterson Park this week, 12-year-old Daniel John took refuge under a tree, poring over a book, enjoying a space all his own.

"If I were at home, I'd probably be watching TV for over seven hours," said the rising seventh-grader at Montebello Elementary/Middle School, who is living at a local shelter.

Daniel is one of 130 Baltimore city and county students who are finding stability in a summer learning program exclusively for homeless students — a population that has ballooned in the city and doubled in Baltimore County in the last five years.

The 104-year-old Camp St. Vincent began its program this week, attempting to see that the most vulnerable students don't fall through the cracks and sustain substantial learning loss during the summer. The program runs through Aug. 10.

The students, ages 5 through 12, lack most of life's necessities, organizers say.

"These are a lot of kids who just aren't looked after," said Vena Carter, director of the camp. "This is a program where we help kids through their situations — where they are able to be a part of a community from the same background and feel a sense of security about that."

Homeless students can experience learning loss at twice the 30 percent rate their nonhomeless peers do, according to statistics cited by the camp, and the most recent data show that campers who attend St. Vincent's retain more than 80 percent of reading and math skills over the summer.

From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., children engage in academic lessons, such as math and reading, and enrichment opportunities like art and dance classes.

"What I like about the camp is that we study, and not play all day," Daniel said. "We can forget about school because two months is a long time."

The camp also works to provide other things lacking in homeless students' lives, including a sense of community and identity, self-esteem, and attention.

"They [also] teach us not to be shy in front of each other," Daniel added. "They teach us to be positive, so that others don't feel lonely."

Because the camp can accommodate only about 130 students, students leave once their parents get back on their feet.

Tammie Maynard was just starting a job last year when her daughter, Tresjour Thomas, started attending Camp St. Vincent while they lived at a Salvation Army shelter. Now that Maynard is no longer homeless, she's struggling to find a comparable summer program that will allow Tresjour to continue dance lessons.

"She was just excited to go every day, she had an outlet, and I didn't have to worry," Maynard said. "To go to a camp where they can be creative and do the things that they were doing, you would have to pay an arm and a leg for it. I'm trying to come up with the money and pay the rent at the same time."

The program runs on funding from city agencies, and supplements supplies and activities with private donors and in-kind donations from various agencies. The cost for each student is $190 for a week.

Sydney White, 17, a recent graduate of Seton Keough High School, began volunteering her sophomore year to earn service-learning hours and stayed on. She hopes to be employed at the camp during her summers off from college.

"It was tough at first because you don't know where the kids come from, what ticks them off, what makes them happy," she said. "But you kind of know their situation — and to see them smile, that's what keeps me coming back every day."