Free Summer Camp In Florida Changes Community Outlook
By Marshall Dury, Internet Reporter
Youth across the country are currently attending many different forms of summer programming. One day camp in Florida, however, is giving children the chance to experience a free summer camp lifestyle while building strong ties with community law enforcement at the same time.
Harmony In The Streets is a mobile day camp for children between the ages of six and 12 offered throughout Florida. Its name and program approach is derivative of the larger Project Harmony run through the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches (FSYR) program. The mobile summer camp stays in one area for five days, giving free camp services to sheriff-designated, disadvantaged areas in Florida.
"The goal of Harmony In The Streets is twofold. First, we want to give underprivileged children a wonderful summer camp experience who usually wouldn't be able to have one," said Phil Schults, Director of Camping Services for FSYR. "The other part is to provide these children with an understanding that police officers are not the 'bad guy.' We want to foster a strong relationship between officers and the futures of our communities - kids."
While offering the classic summer camp experience with games and even a "Slip 'N Slide," this camp is also staffed by officers from the sheriff's department who are hoping to establish a respectful relationship with the children. Schults thinks the camp's laidback activities and deputy counselors create a unique and invaluable bond between young citizens and law enforcement figures.
The camp's combined approach of building community relationships and having fun makes a substantial impact on the kids in five days. At least one child will usually ask staff members "to stick around or even take them home," according to Schults. Those connections between staff members and children are something the program was created to do from its beginnings in the mid-1990s.
The Challenge Heard 'Round Florida
Harmony In The Streets has been making a difference in the lives of children in Florida since 1997 using only a passionate staff and a truck as a supply depot for the day's activities. Before 1997, Florida had little summer programming for children. According to Schults, children were sometimes left unsupervised from nine-to-five by working parents - leaving some children to get into trouble throughout the day.
But, it was in 1996 that former acting Jacksonville Sheriff Nat Glover challenged his own department to create a summer program that would both excite and teach young people.
With this simple challenge, a programming team was created and Harmony In The Streets was quickly implemented in the summer of 1997 - providing Florida communities across the state with a three-week trial programming period. From its humble beginnings, Harmony In The Streets has grown to provide Florida youths with over two and a half months of a summer camp experience.
"It's a sad reality that we cannot stay in one place all summer, but it's also not feasible, nor is it fair to other parts of Florida," said Brian Coduto, Harmony In The Streets Site Director. "But the great thing is that we are teaching these kids everything from conflict resolution to how to play kick ball, from outdoors education classes to 'Beach Week.' I think it's our variety of programming and positive outlook that makes us so successful in the community."
Coduto also notes that one difference between the average summer camp and Harmony In The Streets is its evaluations. While the phrasing may not sound like an integral part of a child's summer camp, this activity may be the most crucial part of each day, according to Coduto.
"We take a few minutes after each game or activity and talk about why it was a success. Here, we're looking to stress teamwork, listening skills, respect for objects, and more importantly, other people," said Coduto. "We hope those values make some sort of impact on the kids and they can carry those values into their schools and homes."
While teaching youths about themselves and each other, Harmony In The Streets counselors are also trying to make local ties to the community in more ways than one. They are looking to breakdown the barrier of fear between law enforcement and community members and trying to link community establishments to private citizens, children and parents alike.
"P" Is For Partnerships: Deputies and The Community
One goal of Harmony In The Streets is to break down a stereotype of a sheriff's deputy being perceived as someone who works against, as opposed to with, the community. From the moment camp programming starts, officers are told to address this problem simply by wearing normal clothes, being themselves, and most of all, having fun.
Removing the uniform and arriving in shorts and a T-shirt allows the kids to see the deputies as just another person - not the mythic bad guy children are sometimes raised to believe officers are, according to Schults.
"Anywhere from three to five deputy sheriffs will participate in a single week's worth of activities. This is to let the kids know that they can trust an officer and build a healthy relationship that a community can really thrive on," said Coduto. "Understanding why some kids fear these [deputies] is key. Sometimes, they're brought up being told to run away from an officer no matter what. We're trying to break down that barrier because we want the officers to be partners with people in the community."
While sheriff's deputies undoubtedly play an integral role in relationship building, tangible community relationships are just as important, according to Cori Welbes, Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches' Community Relations Director. Welbes' hope is that once the deputies establish a relationship with the children and parents, families will be more receptive to local social workers and community services as a support system rather than a crutch.
One example of a newly created community tie is with the Interfaith Alliance, which works with a church to provide the program with meals for the children each day. Another relationship has developed with S&S Recreation, which provides the program with arts and crafts supplies at a lower-than-average cost.
"We want the community relationships that we start at Harmony In The Streets to be lasting ones. We want people to be accepting of help, of officer direction and of community assistance," said Welbes. "This camp program is exceptional but it's more than just something for the kids to do during the day. We're trying to get our hands around the heart of communities and offer a helping hand when we can."
From its communal linkages to the simple service of keeping children occupied during the busy summer months, Harmony In The Streets is working hard to accomplish what its name boasts. Like any another program though, it is looking forward to what the future may bring.
Keeping the Harmony Alive
Despite recent budget crunches, Florida has kept in mind the need for Harmony In The Streets, noting its vision and leadership in reforming both community relationships and deputy stigma among children. While the camp's current resources are sufficient, Welbes hopes the future may lead to more staff members and even more resources for the kids.
"Right now we've got five teams working every week to provide these kids with a great experience. I am obviously pleased, but one day I hope for 10," said Welbes. "We hope we can continue to grow each year, but we must keep in mind that our services do not suffer in the process."
As the summer days grow shorter and summer programming is half over, Schults is reflective about the effect Harmony In The Streets is having. While there's still work to be done, he hopes the morals, values and community connections this program creates each week will stand the test of time.
"I'm not naïve enough to think that we are effecting every child's life, every day this summer," said Schults. "While our program can't change a child, we can give them direction and that's what these kids need sometimes. We want to be the long-term effect - the smile that the kids can't get rid of long after we're gone."
Cori Welbes, Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches Camping Services Community Relations Director, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.youthranches.org
Phil Schults, Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches Director of Camping Services, (386)-749-9999, email@example.com, www.youthranches.org
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