Free summer camp needs donations, volunteers after tripling in size

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A month-long free day camp for kids around Austin tripled its attendance over the course of a decade, and now organizers say they need more people to donate money and their skills in order to keep serving all the kids who need them.

“No one should be left out of having summer fun just because they can’t afford it,” said Dee Gonzales, the program coordinator for the youth leadership program. The camp runs through the Austin Police Department’s office of community liaison, but all the workers are volunteers.

Kids take art classes, learn about financial literacy and hear from first responders. This year, an instructor with the National Junior Tennis League stopped by for a day to teach the campers how to hit a forehand.

Sarah Pernell lined the new tennis players up on the courts outside Kealing Middle School, where the camp takes place, last Thursday and challenged them to return a ball she tossed toward them. 

It’s not easy wrangling such a large group of beginners and keeping them on task, but Pernell has practice.

“We normally have anywhere from 75 to 80 kids at a site,” she said. “This day we have about 150.”

That’s a big increase from the number of kids the camp started with 10 years ago. At its inception, volunteers served just about 50 kids, from rising 6th graders to upcoming 9th graders. 

Since then, Gonzales said she’s had families send multiple kids through the camp. “We’ve had students who have gone through the program, who have already gone to college and have come back and volunteered,” she said.

But, Gonzales said they can’t keep offering the program to everyone who wants to take part unless they find a way to fund the expansion. If she can’t find the money to keep paying for it, she’ll have to cap the number of students who can participate.

“We definitely want to grow the program, but we can’t grow it until we get more funding,” she said.

This year the campers will help bring in more donations with the art they make in one of the classes. Jet Baker runs the nonprofit Share Art Heal, and for the last three years he’s been mentoring the kids through art projects.

“I personally don’t have any kids,” he said, “but every June I have 100 kids.”

Thursday the young artists traced outlines of themselves on big rolls of paper and came up with a mission and superhero name to tackle that mission. The students turned their outlines into those superheroes with markers and crayons and invented powers their characters had to accomplish their goals.

It’s a project Baker started with the campers last year. This summer, they’ll work on another project, too: creating a piece of art as a group. The nonprofit plans to use that to find sponsors who are willing to donate money to the camp in exchange for the work.

“We’re looking for businesses, corporations and families in Austin,” Baker said. 

The idea comes from a similar sponsorship model at Dell Children’s Medical Center, Baker said, which he’s worked with in the past. 

Gonzales hopes that won’t be the only new source of funding for her camp. “I want people to come in and say, ‘I’ve got some money,’ or ‘I’ve got a service that I can provide for those children for free.'”

Anyone interested in donating money or volunteering to teach can contact Gonzales at (512) 414-6700.

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