For many kids in St. Tammany Parish, summer is a time for long days spent playing outdoors, easy weekends at the baseball park, and — especially for kids with parents who both work — it means summer camp.
But the expense of camp leaves many families who are struggling financially with no option but to leave their kids unattended. Chassidy Groover of Covington knows what waited for her without an affordable summer camp option.
“If I were not in camp, I would either be stuck at my mom’s office with absolutely nothing to do, or just hanging out with different people — and not necessarily in a constructive environment,” Groover says.
For parents who can’t afford summer camp, finding something constructive for their kids to do during the summer can be a worrisome reality.
“As a parent, I realize that, for me, costs tend to increase — the costs of running a household tends to increase in the summer, just by virtue of the fact that my kids are home and I need to make preparations for them,” says Nathan Young, the Executive Director of Upward Community Services. It's a nonprofit that runs an affordable summer camp for many Northshore families.
“The whole idea for our summer camp was to be a resource for parents who are in those types of situations,” he says.
On a summer day in 1991 Young's father, Pastor Alfred Young of Faith Bible Church, came upon two young kids fighting in the street. When pressed about what the fight was over, the kids said they had nothing better to do. Camp Upward was born.
“At that time, there were no summer camps in the community of this nature," Young says. "He saw a need and thought, we need to do something about that.”
Young knew that if he didn’t make the camp affordable, he would be excluding the very families he was trying to help. But he also knew there needed to be some investment from the parents to make them take it seriously. They needed to have some skin in the game.
“The whole family comes to our camp for twenty-five dollars a week," says Young. "The reason why we did that is, number one, we try to give people a hand up and not a hand out, and that’s just one of our core values. And secondly, we believe that if people invest in what they’re participating in, well, then they’ll take responsibility for it. There’s no ‘Well, mom, I want to stay home today and watch television unsupervised.’ ‘Uh, no, I paid my money, you’re going to go to camp.’ You know what I mean?”
The purpose of Camp Upward is not just to provide affordable summer day care. According to their mission statement, it’s to give kids the opportunity and exposure needed to break the cycle of poverty, crime, neglect and substance abuse. Young believes the camp must focus on character building in order to do that.
“We teach character building as part of our summer camp," he says. "For us, it’s not just important — it’s vital. Understand that a lot of the kids that we serve, unfortunately, come from situations where they may not necessarily understand all of the things that many of us who were raised in ideal situations take for granted.”
Chassidy is now a college graduate and is expecting to enter medical school soon. She attributes much of her success after high school to her experience at Camp Upward.
“The rigors of academia, it wasn’t as challenging for me because I had had the experience of not only being a camp counselor — working with diverse groups of people — and being a camper — working also with diverse groups of people — because we teach our campers how to interact well with other people," she says. "But it prepared me for absolutely anything, I guess. The character building helps you in college because you can reflect on those things you learned as a camp kid or a camp counselor and bring it to real world experiences.”
Camp Upward is open to all children ages 5-14 in St. Tammany and Washington Parishes.
Northshore Focus is made possible with support from the Northshore Community Foundation.