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'Howard Seven' Rotary Clubs unite to support summer enrichment program

Ron Carlson, president of Ellicott City's Sunrise Rotary Club, was surprised to find out that approximately 850 families with children in Howard County are at or below poverty as of 2015, according to the county's Community Action Council, earning $24,000 a year or less.

As the numbers of low-income families continue to grow, having increased from 4.5 percent in 2010 to 5.4 percent in 2014, Carlson has united the "Howard Seven" Rotary clubs to draw support for the private nonprofit organization's Summer Enrichment Program, providing health, nutrition and educational services to children ages 3 to 5, as well as enhancing cognitive, social and emotional development.

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"We did this to explore the possibility that you could not only address this problem, but also add this enrichment of community learning," Carlson said. "The community learning is something that people still tend to minimize but becomes really valuable when you think about the introduction to these children."

After establishing their new mission to help children in need, Carlson said the Sunrise Rotary Club reached out to CAC President Bita Dayhoff about the organization's nine-month early childhood education program, Head Start, a learning atmosphere for children ages 3 and 4 during the school year.

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"Families who are living at 100 percent of poverty are unable to afford early childhood education experience," Dayhoff said. "We do it free of charge."

Carlson, although impressed, said he was also curious to know what happens when summer arrives, leaving families unable to afford camps or other extracurricular activities for their children. That's when the Summer Enrichment Program's 7-week extension comes into play, Dayhoff said, with its current enrollment of 152 children, five days a week, six hours a day.

"The goal is to ensure that children are entering school ready to learn in addition to exposing them to cultural activities and experiences that are unreachable for them," she said.

Without hesitation, Carlson brought the program before the other Rotary Club presidents and their 200 members to act as a source of funding for the betterment of summer education. Both Rotary Club members and community volunteers quickly joined in to help with tutoring services for reading and math based on pre-K readiness.

This past summer, Carlson and Sunrise Rotary Club member Lou Melton said they also took field trips with the kids to broaden their cultural horizons, visiting the Robinson Nature Center, Toby's Dinner Theatre and the Columbia Orchestra.

"The program is intended to provide both a learning environment during the summer, but to also provide them with some cultural experience, [like] swimming, going to the zoo, spending time at the nature conservancy," Melton said. "[These are] things you may well have done as a child, but chances are, these kids weren't given the opportunity to do these things."

The program isn't strictly "a day care opportunity," Carlson added.

"These kids are really learning," he said. "We know it, they know it and we're participating in it. These little kids are so enthusiastic and so full of smiles. We want to say, 'Gosh, can we just hold onto that.'"

And the seven Rotary Clubs are doing all they can to give those children an opportunity to do that. To keep one child in the program, Carlson said, the costs average to $840 during the seven-week period.

The Rotary Clubs' continuous fundraising efforts raised about $50,000 last year from the support of several banks, including PNC Bank, the Howard Bank, the Sandy Spring Bank, Wells Fargo, Apple Ford, and JP Partners.

"There are a lot of families who aren't able to get their kids into the Head Start program because there's not enough money from federal, state and local sources," Carlson said. "There are a lot of resources in the community."

The Sunrise Rotary Club announced the program as their "signature project" on Sept. 16 at Claret Hall Village Center in River Hill.

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"Members of the Sunrise Rotary Club have given up their time, talent and treasure," Dayhoff said. "They provide mentoring opportunity to the parents of the program and have been incredible partners in our success."

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