When the COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible to run New Community Corporation’s annual summer camp in the traditional way, staff members began working on an alternative to engage children in activities safely. The result was a virtual camp for children ages 5 to 13, which ran four days a week from July 22 to Aug. 27.
The virtual camp was free for families and served more than 50 children. Funding was provided through the New Jersey Governor’s Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (JJDP) Committee and administered through the JJC.
Children participated in a variety of activities, including photography; STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics); Zumba; arts and crafts; music appreciation; group discussions; and virtual field trips. For the virtual field trips, the younger children got to experience a zoo by viewing live cameras showing the animals. Older children were exposed to a variety of museum exhibits with their virtual field trips.
The virtual camp ran Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to noon via Zoom. Children were provided with a science kit and a camera for the program. Activities were taught by traditional camp staff and outside vendors, including a photography teacher and Zumba instructor.
The response from parents has been positive. Two of Tecia Martinez’s children participated in the virtual camp: Madisyn, 11, and Kaleb, 6. She was very pleased with what was offered and believes it was a great alternative to the traditional camp.
“They’re still becoming engaged with other kids and they’re meeting other children that they may not have actually socialized with when they’re physically at camp,” she said. “You don’t want your kids to just sit there and sleep all day or just try to stay in front of the screens all day because you can’t think of anything else to do. This is still making them think.”
Children and staff members involved in the virtual summer camp shared their experiences in this finale video.
Putting together a virtual camp quickly was a challenge, but New Community Corporation staff knew it was important to provide activities in some form and give children the opportunity to interact with their peers.
“This summer was very challenging for everyone, especially the children. The virtual camp was a chance for them to make that social and emotional connection with one another during a time when they might not be able to have personal connections,” said Youth Services Director Edward Morris. “We wanted to engage them in a fun and interesting way and at the same time, hopefully, teach them some new skills.”
Youth Services collaborated with Harmony House, New Community Corporation’s transitional housing facility for homeless families, to ensure its residents participated in the virtual camp.
Beverly Jackson, a resident of Harmony House, signed up her daughter, Diana Bryant, and was pleased with the results.
Bryant, who turned 14 over the summer, enjoyed her virtual camp experience.
“I liked all three sessions that we got every day. I liked STEM, I liked Zumba. I liked everything,” she said. “The camp was very cool.”
Morris and Chief of Health and Human Services Arti Kakkar were happy New Community Corporation was able to provide a free, quality camp to young people during the pandemic.
“STEM experiments really brought the kids to the class on time, ready to engage,” Kakkar said. “For the younger kids, we could see parents being a part of it, which I think is a beautiful thing and great bonding for them. Our goal was to engage kids by teaching photography, STEM, Zumba, music appreciation and arts and crafts without putting any stress on the parents.”
Martinez believes that goal was accomplished.
“It was definitely a blessing to have them participate,” she said. “They really enjoyed it. And I enjoyed it.”
Kakkar also praised the staff for being flexible and working through a new method of providing services.
“I think Mr. Morris and his team have done a great job considering the situation we found ourselves in with the pandemic,” Kakkar said. “We had dedicated staff working with the youth, keeping them occupied and enjoying learning.”
Funding was crucial to providing a positive summer experience during a difficult and stressful time.
“This wouldn’t have been possible without financial support,” Kakkar said.