Concrete Summer Learning Adventure: A Summer Camp full of Challenge, Heartbreak and Joy

August 30th, 2017 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

Story and photo by Becky Moore, a graduate student in the Institute’s Master of Education program.

This summer, I was fortunate enough to work as one of the four coordinators for Concrete Summer Learning Adventure (CSLA), as part of my graduate summer leadership track through North Cascades Institute. CSLA is a summer camp for kids entering 1st through 8th grade that takes place at the local high school in Concrete, Washington in the foothills of the North Cascades. CSLA was created based on the needs in the community for affordable summer child care, food security, and the reduction of summer learning loss among kids.This summer, I was fortunate enough to work as one of the four coordinators for Concrete Summer Learning Adventure (CSLA), as part of my graduate summer leadership track through North Cascades Institute. CSLA is a summer camp for kids entering 1st through 8th grade that takes place at the local high school in Concrete, Washington in the foothills of the North Cascades. CSLA was created based on the needs in the community for affordable summer child care, food security, and the reduction of summer learning loss among kids.

This 4-week camp is an amazing service: kids get picked up and dropped off Monday-Friday by school bus, fed breakfast, lunch, and snack, engage in literacy sessions twice a week, and go on a different field trip every Tuesday and Thursday. All of this for a fee of only $40 per child, with the option for a complete scholarship if needed.

This summer, CSLA was coordinated by Rachel Sacco, who is the Farm to School Coordinator for Concrete, and Adele Eslinger, both of whom work for United General Hospital Community Health Outreach Program. Melissa Biggs and I joined them as members of the 16th graduate cohort at North Cascades Institute. Staff members included 5 interns from Western Washington University and CHOP, as well as 5 high school interns hired from Concrete High School.

CSLA had an average attendance of 47 elementary-aged students each day at camp. These kids were divided into 4 different groups, each led by a Western intern. The middle school group was run by Rachel, myself, and our Western intern Allison Seitz. Mike Brondi, a well-respected park ranger in North Cascades National Park for over 30 years as well as a substitute teacher for Concrete, volunteered with us and was an extremely-valued addition to our group. We called ourselves CSLA+, and our group name was the Pikas. We had 17 campers entering 6th through 8th grade.

Campers enjoying breakfast. Meals were provided by Concrete High School Monday through Wednesday, and by North Cascades Institute every Thursday.

This was my seventh year in a camp counselor type role, and it was by far the most challenging setting I have ever worked in. The first week of camp was a complete whirlwind of emotion, personality, and hardship. My job was supposed to be as an environmental educator leader from NCI, but it became clear very quickly that this was not the leader that my kids needed me to be. I felt more like a social worker. These kids were coming into camp with stories that blew me away. They have all dealt with more hardship and pain in their 10 or 12 years than I have seen in my whole life. Broken families, neglect, extreme poverty, hunger, and drugs are just skimming the surface. My kids were carrying heavy burdens on their little shoulders, and behaviors to go along with them. That first week was slightly chaotic because there was no trust- most of our kids had absolutely no reason to trust any new adults who come into their lives. Every day, their stories broke my heart. No amount of class time or curriculum training or lesson planning could ever prepare me, or anyone, for facing these kids and their tough situations and behaviors.

Pikas in action! In the midst of an intense round of a teambuilding game.

I quickly learned that what these kids really needed, more than any silly lesson plans, was support. Validation, affirmation, respect, trust. For many, coming to camp every day was the only place they received positivity in their lives. For some, it would be the only food they would have, the only place they felt safe. Just being there, regardless of what we did, was a huge service to these kids. Some were afraid to go home each day. But despite all these struggles, they always came to camp with a smile. I have never experienced such strength. They all just wanted to be heard, and cared about. So, I started listening.

Each one of my kids is an amazing individual, each with their own unique talents, strengths, and struggles. I built a relationship with each one, learning as much as I could about each person, hearing every voice as best I could, especially those that were the quietest. What I learned was amazing. My kids slowly started to trust me. They knew that I cared about them. We went on awesome field trips, exploring in the woods and on farms and playing in streams. We played endless games of all sorts, from tag to garden scavenger hunts to Taboo. We cooked together, we ate together, we had discussions, we made art. We got angry and frustrated at each other, there were fights, there was sometimes a lack of focus. But we also laughed together, we were silly, we experienced new things together, and we built a beautiful little community.

Each week, we improved, and by the last week, we were a tight knit, supportive, positive group. This was an amazing transformation; from the first week of chaos and mistrust, to the final one, when our kids were looking out for each other, were supportive, kind, respectful, and listening to each other and to their leaders. Nobody wanted camp to be over.

The Pikas were pretty excited about eating carrots out of the ground at the Confluence Garden!

I feel that these past four weeks were truly transformative for myself and my kids. I learned an incredible amount about hardship, struggle, and support. I learned how to listen to those who are not used to being heard, and to create a positive space where all of my kids felt safe, were fed, and were supported. I did my best to empower every one of my kids in little ways. That is what they needed.
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or their part, they challenged me and each other. They learned, and grew. Some had huge positive behavioral changes from the beginning to the end of camp. All of our kids had a great time, learned new things, gained confidence, and made new friends, both peers and adults. They broke my heart, every day. But they also filled my heart with joy. Seeing their smiling faces get off the bus every morning, getting hugs, hearing stories, laughing and learning. I was happy every single day to get up and go to work, I never wanted a day or a week to be over. I feel so incredibly fortunate to have had these experiences with these kids and this program. These are amazing people that I was able to spend my summer with, and I am grateful to each and every one of my little Pikas.

By the end of our time together, the Pikas loved group hugs!!

Concrete Summer Learning Adventure is made possible through amazing partnerships between United General Hospital, North Cascades Institute, Concrete School District, Western Washington University, and the National Park Service. Huge gratitude also to our hosts at each field trip location, our bus drivers, and our cooks, both at the school and at the Institute’s Environmental Learning Center —  camp would not have run without them!

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