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Detroit Kids Get Summer of Fun, Learning at Free Camp

The breakthrough day camp program at Central Detroit Christian helps kids thrive.

Summer break seems like a universally loved and anticipated time of year for most school-aged kids – a chance to relax, get outdoors and just have fun. But it's not quite so carefree for everyone. For some children in Detroit, a lapse in the school routine means no longer having predictable meals, enriching activities or adult supervision when parents are at work. With the cost of camps out of reach for many families, summer break can become a source of stress and uncertainty instead of a much-needed reprieve. Fortunately, at least one local nonprofit has been working to change that.

For the past 23 years, Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation has offered six weeks of full-day summer camp to kids in Detroit at absolutely no cost to their families. The faith-based organization opens its Breakthrough Day Camp each year to children in the ZIP codes of 48202, 48203, 48206 and 48211. "The kids who are with us all day are being properly nourished and getting all the things they need," says Russell Howard, director of youth programs at Central Detroit Christian. "We're giving the kids both breakfast and lunch, and we're also sending them home with a snack."

The program, open to boys and girls ages 6-13, welcomes about 150-200 campers each year. Activities include sports, field trips every Friday and a focus on academics to avoid the "brain drain" kids tend to experience in summer. This year's camp theme is reading. "With the reading initiatives put in place by the state of Michigan for third graders – if they're not able to read at a third-grade level, they won't pass to the next grade – we've been centering a lot of our programs around reading," Howard explains, adding that four library field trips are planned this summer. "Reading is a major thing for us now."

But don't let the idea of a reading-based day camp give you the idea that kids will be bored. "They never want to go home," he laughs. The campers also get the chance to try new things during the six-week program, like planting and tending to a vegetable garden. "Every day is different," Howard says. "We have four days of day camp, and then on Friday we always get to do something extra fun."

It takes a large team to run the camp, including the help of about 25 to 50 teens – many of whom are former campers themselves. "A lot of our team staff will be from the neighborhood, as well," Howard adds. "The best part about it is a lot of the kids were in the program before when they were younger. Now they actually get to get paid through (Grow Detroit's Young Talent) and get a chance to give back and also learn job skills."

Offering the program for free makes it a crucial resource for parents who can't afford traditional summer camp options. Registration begins in May and is first-come first-served, so parents should plan to sign up as early as possible. "You don't have to go and spend $150 (per week). You can come here and get all the same things, if not more, at CDC, and we're going to love on your kids like nobody else will," Howard says. "There aren't a lot of free programs out there offering as many things as we're offering."

Plus, "it's giving them an alternative to being on the streets for the summer." Howard says, "When kids don't have something to do, it's easy for them to get themselves in trouble or be around the wrong crowds. In this they're in a monitored, supervised environment and around other people who care and love them and want the best for them."

And the academic focus makes it an especially unique option, combining key skills with plenty of fun. "It's very important because a lot of times, some of those skills that were learned throughout the school year don't get a chance to be sharpened all summer. You can keep those same skills sharp and keep it going and be ready for when next year starts, without any lag in between," Howard explains. "Also, most importantly, because we're a Christian-based camp, we get a chance to teach them about Jesus and God and see if that's something they want to be a part of, as well."

The free camp wouldn't be possible without the support of donations, grants and sponsors like UnitedHealthcare. "They really care about the neighborhood," Howard says. "This is a program that's in a neighborhood that really needs the help and appreciates it so much."

Registration begins in May. To learn more visit 1550 Taylor St. in Detroit, call Russell Howard at 313-686-4535 or check out their website.

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