EDGEWOOD, Ky. — Jessica Roberts wasn't sure what she was going to do with her three kids this summer.
Roberts was going through a divorce, money was tight, and she was scrambling to find a good job. Then she got a notice from her kids' school about Summer 360° — a seven-week camp that would transport her children on a bus, serve them breakfast and lunch, help them with reading and math and take them on fun field trips several times each week. And the best part, said Roberts' 9-year-old daughter Annabell: "It's all free!"
"It came just in time," said Roberts, who started a new job at Citi in Florence on the first day of the camp. "I'm trying to start over, and every penny counts."
Summer 360° is a signature program of UpSpring, a nonprofit formerly known as Faces Without Places that serves the needs children and youth experiencing homelessness. For UpSpring, that means the kids lack a "fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence." Some stay in motels with their parents. Others are doubled up with relatives or stay in homeless shelters.
While the camp has been around for more than 18 years in Cincinnati, this is the first summer for UpSpring to have a separate location in Northern Kentucky. A $195,000 grant from Cummins, Inc., made the second location possible.
The Northern Kentucky camp is serving about 50 students from the Kenton County and Erlanger-Elsmere school districts at Caywood Elementary School in Edgewood. There are many more students in those school districts that could qualify for the camp, but UpSpring capped enrollment, said Alex Kuhns, UpSpring's program director and the Caywood summer camp director.
"This is kind of a pilot year for this location," Kuhns said. "We wanted to discover our strengths and areas of challenge."
Roberts' 12-year-old son Michael said he likes the field trips at Summer 360° the best. He also has made new friends at camp and likes helping the younger kids when they need it.
"I haven't had one bad day at this place," Michael said.
And that was after being there for almost two whole weeks.
'It's Always Good Things'
The camp has a serious side, too.
The math and reading exercises are designed to limit the "summer learning loss" that can be more dramatic for children experiencing homelessness, Kuhns said.
UpSpring refers to the field trips as "enrichment," and those activities are about more than fun, too. They are designed to help the campers feel a part of their communities and in sync with other students once school starts again, he said.
That way when other kids are talking about the cool things they did over the summer, the Summer 360° campers can talk about how they went to Kings Island and got to sit in the cockpit of a plane at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport and took a pirate cruise on the Ohio River — and on and on. UpSpring even provides every camper with a free swimsuit, towel and flip-flops for field trips to local pools.
"There's a lot of things I wouldn't have been able to do for them this summer," Jessica Roberts said of her three children at the camp. "It took a lot of worrying and stress off me. I know that they're not going to be locked indoors all summer."
Each day of the camp, Roberts' children come home with goodie bags or crafts they have made, she said. And they always have stories about the fun things they have done or new things they have learned.
"It's nonstop every day, and it's always good things," Roberts said. "And they're always smiling and happy, and that makes me feel good coming home from work and knowing that they're enjoying their day."
The school buses that transport the Summer 360° campers arrive at Caywood around 9 each morning.
The students burst through the school doors and give high fives to the teachers, staff members and volunteers who line up on either side of the hallway to greet them.
The first order of business is to go downstairs to the school gym to run through some exercises and activities.
Then it's back upstairs for breakfast. When there's a big field trip, sometimes the students get breakfast to go. But when they're at Caywood, they get a hot meal.
After breakfast, mornings are filled with educational activities that revolve around literacy, math and what Kuhns calls social and emotional intelligence.
Afternoons are filled with half-day enrichment trips, such as visits to a local pool. And the campers have at least one full-day field trip each week.
The camp is open to children as young as 5, as long as they have completed kindergarten, and serves students through age 12.
"We have a 6-year-old who the teachers say could take the advanced 12-year-old reading assessment," Kuhns said. "There are brilliant kids in this population. And there are those that struggle because of the circumstance."
The point is not to dwell on the struggles, though.
Everything about Summer 360° camp is strength-based, meaning the teachers and staff talk to students about what they have going for them instead of focusing on what they don't have.
"We can feed kids. We can clothe them. But how do you explain to a kid that they're not going to be in a hotel forever?" Kuhns said. "That their family is working hard to get back on track? Lack of self-esteem is a real issue. We work really hard in team building."
'He Loves It'
Anthony, who is 12, enjoys the camp so much that he doesn't even mind getting up early for it, he said.
"I like the math, and we have library time, which is fun because we get to check out books," he said.
He has big plans to graduate from high school and join the Air Force so he can learn to be a mechanic who works on the planes, like one of his cousins.
"He's excited every day he comes home," said Faith Cummins, the lady Anthony has lived with since February. "He comes home and tells me about the interesting places they get to go."
He likes it so much that he was sorry to miss a week — even though he spent that week at Boy Scout camp, Cummins said.
"He loves it," she said. On the Monday after Boy Scout camp "he was up at 7:30 and ready to go."
And the teachers and staff at Summer 360° were ready and excited to welcome him back.
To learn more about UpSpring, click here. To donate to UpSpring's summer campaign, click here.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, to go www.wcpo.com/poverty.