By Janeen McGee (formerly Walton, Benbenek)
As an Adventure Unlimited alum, parent of two former A/U Ranches campers and local community member, I can’t express enough gratitude for all that the 100 Elk Outdoor Center has done during the most difficult of times this past summer. For me, it shows what can happen as a result of many, many summers of prioritizing camp–applying for camp scholarships, getting kiddos packed up and off to camp and ensuring their experience was protected by spiritual thought and a high-minded atmosphere.
A parent’s job is not only to raise a child, but also to surround them with the most loving environment, caring adults and other young people as possible. What a beautiful joy it was this summer to see it all come full circle!
Bringing programs and participants together
What looked like daunting times for Leadville/Lake County families beginning in March 2020 was made easier by the love and joy of those who serve others at 100 Elk. Quickly springing into gear, the 100 Elk staff created a summer adventure day camp and reached out to us at the Lake County Department of Human Services, asking, “What would it take to bring kids to this program?”
The answers were easy: interpreters who could speak Spanish to parents, outreach in the local community, ensuring that transportation wasn’t a barrier and flexibility — all of which were immediately in place.
Leadville/Lake County families who benefited from the summer 2020 100 Elk adventure day camp include those engaged in the Lake County Department of Human Services Wraparound Program. This program serves youth who are involved in multiple systems: child welfare, probation diversion, expulsion from school, parents on probation or incarcerated, family on public benefits, families experiencing homelessness and mental health needs of youth or parents.
Summer day camp provided these families with respite care for youth who have been struggling with mental health or behavioral challenges, particularly impacted by COVID-19 and the inability to attend school, interact socially with peers and have a healthy outlet for physical activity.
It also provided a significant resiliency factor – a term used in youth services to describe something that helps a person cope with challenges (like a pandemic). That took the form of physical, mental and social challenges that enable them to overcome fear and anxiety and work through social interactions with their peers; interaction and support from counselors who assist each youth with building on their personal strengths and reinforcing collaboration among peers; and advocacy from counselors for youth needs related to individual and peer communication, safety/wellbeing and goal-setting in physical and social contexts.
Positive, supportive relationships with their counselors has been a highlight for all campers in this two-week program. The participants have expressed significant desire to continue to receive this positive, safe support from counselors who serve as both mentors to younger ages and peers to the older teens.
Much more than child care
Other families who benefited from the summer day camp included those receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) in Lake County and those who are TANF-eligible (household income of <$75k). The TANF caseload in Lake County has increased 125% since March 2020.
Many families experiencing layoffs, furloughs or ending of employment have enrolled in public assistance programming like TANF. This programming requires job search and employment readiness activities, which also require child care in some cases. And although these families are eligible for subsidized child care, the only child care center in Leadville was closed between mid-March and late September. Summer day camp at 100 Elk offered an opportunity for more families to access this much-needed child care, particularly for ages 7-12.
TANF funding can also be used to cover life skills training for youth whose families’ income qualifies. Summer day camp provided this training through its practice of Challenge by Choice as well as social-emotional development gained in the daily programming.
The miracle of the summer of 2020 was that it created a unique opportunity for our families to not only “survive” this challenging time but actually thrive!
Here are some comments from parents (some of them translated from Spanish):
“My kids are over the moon with having access to camp! They have enjoyed every day! They get up and get ready early so they won’t miss the bus!”
“My kids usually complain about being outdoors and doing activities. Not with 100 EIk. They are excited to go to camp, no complaints, no excuses. They wake up on their own every morning!”
“I’m so glad our community was offered this camp. My three kids, all of them, love 100 Elk! They get ready the night before looking forward to all the amazing opportunities this camp is giving them.”
“As a mom, I have been having so much anxiety about the kids re-starting school in the fall, and this camp has helped me with anxiety. The kids love this camp. I was having trouble with them at night during bed time because they were not sleepy and they would go to sleep at 3 a.m. When they started camp the latest they fall asleep is 10 p.m.”
100 Elk has continued to serve the Leadville community by providing outdoor education to the Lake County School District throughout the fall of 2020. Lake County Department of Human Services is also contracting with 100 Elk for an adventure day camp for Leadville families for one session during summer 2021.
Janeen McGee is the Lake County director of human services in Leadville, Colorado.