Camp helps Elba children EXCEL
"Yes, I can," said a group of kids in unison. "Yes, I will. Yes, watch me excel."
This is the motto of Elba's Camp E.X.C.E.L., a summer camp put on by the city's Parks and Recreation Department.
It runs for a total of six weeks between June 3 and June 27, and from July 8 through July 18.
"Camp E.X.C.E.L. is a summer program that services youth between kindergarten ages and ninth grade," said camp director Beverly Daniels Hamilton. "The camp is just a safe place where kids can come and have fun during the summer."
However, this is not just a safe place for kids to have fun. It is also a chance for kids to learn and interact with their friends while their parents are at work. That mission is imbued within the name:
Hamilton said that without this program, most of the kids would just be at home alone.
"We give parents all-day child-care at a nominal cost," Hamilton said. The cost for the whole six weeks is $40 for one child, then $5 for each additional child.
"We felt that it was important to have a fee so that parents could kind of have some investment in it," Hamilton said. "We wanted to make it nominal because a lot of people can't afford a large amount."
Those fees are supplemented with funds from the parks and rec department as well as a grant the program was awarded this year.
"We got an Access to Healthy Food grant, which is from the National Parks and Recreation and the Walmart Foundation," Hamilton said. "It's a $30,000 grant, and the purpose of the grant is to give more kids the opportunity to have meals during the summer."
The camp also partners with other programs such as the library's summer reading program, the local Extension office, and the elementary school's S.T.E.M. program.
This leads to summer days of arts and crafts, snacks, character education and free-play, mixed in with archery, gardening and wildlife presentations.
"We try to do things that are outside of their normal sphere," Hamilton said.
For instance, on one Thursday of the June camp, the Elba Recreation Center's gym was filled with kids and parents learning about owls, tortoises and habitat protection.
"Oooo"s and "Woah"s filled the room as volunteers from the Big Bend Wildlife Sanctuary brought out live animals to teach the kids about the importance of respecting nature.
Since the camp averages a little over 40 kids per day, a team of 11 volunteers and five certified teachers help Hamilton.
"I don't normally even work with kids," said Aja Reese, a rising high school senior and one of the camp volunteers. "I do this because I love these kids."
Nevertheless, it is difficult to overestimate how much this program owes to Hamilton.
"In 2015, we had a change of administration in the [parks and rec] department," Hamilton said. "I had kind of volunteered in the past, but they brought me on board to kind of develop and revamp the program."
Before the revamping in 2015, the camp was still a summer program run by volunteers, but it had little structure.
"We gave it a mission and kind of a sense of purpose," Hamilton said.