Summer Youth Program a success despite early closure

Tuesday, August 31, 2021
‘The Strongman’ referees an epic battle between two fifth-graders during the circus-themed session’s Final Fun Friday at the Berryville Community Center.
Submitted photo

The Berryville Community Center’s Summer Youth Program closed a few weeks early last month — a victim of the Delta variant’s arrival in northwest Arkansas.  Coordinators were not discouraged, however, and counted the summer as a success.

The Summer Youth Program has served area families for more than a decade by providing children in kindergarten through sixth grade with a fun, quality experience five days a week through the summer. Participants enjoyed games, free lunch, swimming, crafts, movies, archery lessons, adventures and more for just $15 per day this year.  Like most children’s programs, SYP was canceled in 2020; the Berryville Community Center was closed all that summer. Pandemic realities and the desire to improve the program’s offerings led to many changes in 2021. 

Berryville Parks and Recreation’s new director, Renee Allison, directed SYP herself years ago, and also supervised the program as it was led by college students for many years. This year, she elected to hire a more experienced team to direct it.

“We have had huge success with college-age people running our summer program; however, there are vast amounts of programing they have never even considered,” Allison said.  SYP director Kathy Skaggs has more than a decade of experience in camp leadership and has been a church director of religious education, a camp waterfront director, a camp horse program director and staff trainer, and more. Kimberly Smith, her immediate supervisor and the new assistant director of parks and recreation, has a master’s degree in teaching, experience in the public school system and is a volunteer fundraising coordinator and steering committee member for Girl Scout Camp NOARK in Huntsville.

Both women brought their years of experience and understanding of a well-rounded camp program to SYP this summer.

“When the opportunity presented itself to hire women who had years of experience running facilities and camp programs, I could not pass it up,” Allison said. “With these adults in charge of the program, both the kids and the counselors get to experience and benefit from this knowledge and take this program to a whole new level.”

Many changes were made to increase security and safety. Campers are now swim-tested and wear bracelets to indicate their proficiency level, which helps lifeguards and camp staff ensure that they don’t swim in water that’s too deep for them. The youngest campers, who have trouble even touching bottom in Berryville’s deep City Pool, will now have to wait until third grade to make the journey across town each Thursday.  And their snack food purchases on Thursdays were limited to a $2.50 maximum once the leadership saw how much junk food could be purchased with so little money.

“Obviously, not all these changes were popular with our campers,” said Smith, who suggested Skaggs for the director position and who helped redesign the program this year. “But they were important for the kids’ health and safety.  Like any parent or caregiver, we have to be willing to disappoint them a little if it’s truly in their best interests. However, we tried to add much more fun than we had to take away.”

So what fun did the program add this year?  For one thing, the campers were split into age groups for the first time, which allowed for a much more age-appropriate approach to activities, games and crafts. Each two-week session also had the same counselors and campers the entire session, which led to closer relationships between campers and counselors and the opportunity to plan and carry out activities customized to that session’s campers’ interests. Skaggs and Smith are both USA Archery certified instructors, so they offered age-appropriate archery lessons to all participants weekly. And at the end of each two-week session, a special Final Fun Friday offered an awards ceremony and large-group fun with activities like team challenges, a giant waterslide and water fun day and a circus midway extravaganza. 

“It’s all about the kids,” Skaggs said. “The staff of any good camp program understands that we start and end with not just keeping all the kids fed and safe, but also challenged, engaged, and happy. That takes a tremendous amount of selflessness and attention from the camp staff.  I want to see kids who feel like their counselors are their best buds… teaching them, playing with them, working on helping them achieve goals and overcome fears.  I saw that begin this year, and it’s always a thrill when it does.”

“And then came the COVID cases,” Smith said.  “I really think we might have stayed open all summer with our mask and spacing precautions if the Delta variant hadn’t arrived.” 

Twice during the summer, the program learned that students with presymptomatic COVID-19 had passed the precautionary temperature check required for entry and spent extended amounts of time with other campers and counselors.  The first realization closed the camp for a week, and more stringent mask and spacing policies were put in place to separate the age groups. However, the second exposure was identified more quickly and would have sent half the campers and counselors home for 12 days — until midway through the last week.  Camp leaders decided to close the camp to make sure that all campers and counselors had the best chance of starting their school year unquarantined and healthy.

The Summer Youth Program will begin hiring staff and taking reservations for its 2022 two-week sessions next March. Prepayment is required to reserve a camper’s spot, and waitlists will be created once the sessions are full.  In the meantime, a new archery program and seasonal activities will soon be offered at the BCC to give kids and adults a chance to continue the fun through the school year. 

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