Not a first-day-of-school topic you’ll hear often this September when kids return to class (in whatever form that takes)! But this summer, for the 11th consecutive year, Riverside’s Peace Camp enriched the long hot days of an otherwise dormant summer, and fostered warm relationships between children ages 6-13 and their counselors from our Child and Family Services Division.
The Peace Program is a social skills-building program funded by the Department of Mental Health, for kids who could benefit from additional emotional support and social development within a group setting, including those at risk for bullying. Kids in the Cambridge/Somerville area are referred through Riverside’s year-round family programs and other sources.
Some things felt the same, like Morning Meeting and Pledge, invoking peaceful words and actions, and a positive attitude – skills kids can learn to help keep the peace. But other than the basics, the format was markedly different from past years – and remarkable in how quickly, resourcefully, and successfully it all came together. Katie Holte, of Riverside’s Home-Based Family Services in Somerville, running our Peace Camp for the first time, attributes that to the group’s watch phrase of “planned flexibility” – repeated often during the six weeks of camp.
Katie and the team of John Allman, Lucy Curell, Corey Kinne, David Lankford, William Mendivil, Remony Pearlman, Ana Paula Rezende-Johnson, and Chelsea Willis met the initial logistical challenge of virtual camp head on. They delivered art supplies, snacks, and special project materials to all campers’ homes so everyone was ready for the next day’s activities. Another rallying cry was summoned often by the team: “Preparation makes it possible!”
To keep kids engaged, often there would need to be a Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C to hit on just the right activity for the moment. This was especially important during the first three weeks, when the program was all online. Some of the newly devised activities are now favorites! Among the memorable activities cited by the kids were the online escape rooms. With an intricate series of signals shared on-screen, this was a big hit. For their part, counselors loved making instruments from recycled materials – and you can see some of the ready-to-play musical creations in the photo! For the final few weeks, counselors arranged to meet campers one-on-one, following social distancing and health protocols, and got to know each other in person.
One thing that knit the whole camp community together – kids, families, counselors – was the weekly newsletter that Katie sent out online. Not only a colorful round-up of the week’s activities, it contained directions to the various games, activities, and crafts from the week, either to repeat at home with siblings or to bring kids who missed a day up-to-date. Sidewalk chalk mosaics, homemade stress balls (with faces and names if you like), or a shoe tower? Try it out!
As an important measure of the program’s success, Katie noted how far some children came in meeting challenges effectively. When they were having trouble locating a virtual scavenger hunt item in their home, or creating a craft item, at first it was easy to shut down or log off. But by the end of the six weeks, the children messaged the counselors to talk about it, and offered advice and encouragement when they saw their peers struggling. And they began to point out kindnesses they saw performed by others, not only citing their own efforts, when this particular discussion was the focus.
An important milestone was reached during the virtual tour of the San Diego Zoo, which included live feeds of some of the animals (replacing a field trip to Franklin Park Zoo). As they shared ideas for which exhibits to visit and the animals they wanted to learn more about, instead of clamoring for their own choices the kids enthusiastically opened up to each other with “Great idea!” and “That is so cool!”
Parents and other providers were grateful too. It was clear that the positive attention and the support they received went a long way toward making this summer feel just a little more normal for a campful of kids. And all have now officially earned the title of “certified peacemakers!”