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Neighborhood Center continues summer camp despite cuts

BY IAN STEWART | JUNE 15, 2011 7:20 AM

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Still in swimsuits from their morning at the pool, two dozen children streamed toward the cooler beneath Wetherby Park’s covered shelter Monday.

Hungry after a long morning of play supervised by the Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County’s annual summer camp, kids from some of Iowa City’s underprivileged neighborhoods eagerly munched on turkey wraps and baby carrots.

But this year, the number of campers benefiting from the Neighborhood Centers’ camp has dropped dramatically.

A lack of carryover funds in Johnson County left the center $30,000 short, forcing the agency to collect money for the camp on its own. Sue Freeman, the program director for the Neighborhood Centers, said it’s tough relying on an uncertain budget.

“When you’re not sure where your funds come from … it’s really hard to pull in your partners and run programs,” she said. But community response to the economic situation has been substantial, she noted.

“We had amazing levels of donations from individuals, and families, and businesses who heard the stories and saw the tales,” Freeman said. “We had people donate everything from $25 to $1,000.”

Even so, with each camper costing the center $600, the 90 or so slots per location the agency was able to provide several years ago have been reduced to approximately 24, with a total of 60 kids attending the camp this summer.

Luckily for local kids, another one of the agency’s projects, the Summer Meals Program, has remained intact.

The Neighborhood Centers and the Iowa City School District have teamed up again this summer, as they have for around the last decade, to provide free lunches for kids in the community.

For Freeman, the agenda isn’t complicated.

“It’s really about making sure that hungry kids in the summer have food to eat,” she said. “Most of our kids are on a food card during the year. During the summer, the food-card money never goes up, but now parents have to provide their kids with two additional meals per day.”

This is a problem AmeriCorps volunteer Trenton Orris said he is keenly aware of.

“It might be their only real meal they get a day,” he said as he supervised the distribution of milk cartons. “They might be eating mayonnaise sandwiches, or they’ll go home and have Flamin’ Hot Cheetos for dinner.”

But Monday, kids crowded around picnic tables, tearing open bags of baby carrots.

“I missed these lunches,” said an excited fifth-grader, biting into a wrap. “They’re just good.”

Funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the lunches are distributed in some neighborhoods in which at least 50 percent of children qualify for free or reduced meals during the school year.

While the number of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch in the School District has hovered around 30 percent for the past several years, the district’s Director of Food Services Diane Duncan-Goldsmith said the percentage was half that 20 years ago.

The city’s Parks and Recreation Department offers activities to supplement the efforts of the Neighborhood Centers, said Gabrielle MacKay, an employee of the department as she kept watch on the playing children.

“We try to have the longest possible day of camp,” she said, describing the morning’s activities as a kind of nature camp, with kids planting gardens and exploring the park, and the afternoon as based on arts and crafts and games.

Freeman described the importance of the activities — and especially the lunch — for the kids.

“It offers kids a touchstone in the middle of the day,” she said. “Summer can be daunting if you don’t have a lot of structure.”


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