'Kind of like a second family': 17th Street summer camp helps dozens of kids

News-DemocratJune 14, 2013 

— A number of community members from the 17th Street area refuse to see their neighborhood decline. Instead, they have joined together to stop problems and create their own solutions.

"We want people to get out and give back to the community. If we do that, then the things that we complain about, you find the solutions there because we're working together," 17th Street Corridor Neighborhood Association member Angie Brown said.

Brown said, being a member of the community with children of her own, she knew there was a need for an educational and active summer camp to keep children busy while they are out of school.

"Kids don't have anything to do and people can't afford what's out there," Brown said.

Brown is now the director of 17th Street Summer Fun Camp, which was created to fill this void. It costs $45 for one child and $25 for each child after that.

Florence Chears-Lawrence, who has twin 10 year olds, brought her children to camp for the first time this year.

"This has been awesome because, for one, it's affordable. With two kids it's affordable, otherwise I don't know what I would have to do with them for the summer. I'm always paying a fortune for summer care for my twins," Chears-Lawrence said.

Annie Armstrong, who has been bringing her grandchildren to the Summer Fun Camp, said they always look forward to it.

"They can't wait until school gets out so they can go to camp," Armstrong said.

Brittany Thomas, 14, is working with third-graders as a junior counselor at Summer Fun Camp. She did not originally go to camp by choice, though.

She said her grandmother was tired of Brittany "laying around the house."

"I woke up one morning and she's like, 'You're going to camp. Get ready,'" Brittany said. "So I came here not really knowing what to expect, but it's actually very fun."

Brittany said from the moment she walked in, she felt welcomed into the camp, and now she looks forward to it every day.

"I didn't feel like I had to try to be anything else but myself to make friends because they're all just so nice," Brittany said. "I didn't think that I would be so into it, waking up early in the morning -- 7:30 (a.m.) -- and for me that's a lot. This is kind of like a second family to me."

Brown said the campers participate in activities and games, but there is always learning taking place, including math and reading tutoring.

She wants to show the children and young adults what opportunities they have in their future.

"All they aspire to be are, unfortunately, superstars, athletes and everything, as a child, you probably wanted to be yourself until you continued to grow," Brown said. "We want to expose them to something different -- a little bit more than just the norm."

Brown arranged to have business owners and community leaders speak to the children. They will also be taking field trips to the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville, the Willoughby Heritage Farm in Collinsville and Memorial Hospital in Belleville to look at different occupations.

Gloria Crowder, the association's president and Brown's mother, previously ran a daycare out of her home. She said helping children has always been a passion of hers.

"Every child deserves a positive role model," Crowder said. "Every child deserves a chance to be successful and to see what it is that they can do to contribute to society, to this world. We may be looking at the next president, Nobel Prize winner."

Crowder said, besides having her daughter and grandchildren at the camp with her, many of the campers are like family as well.

"A lot of these children and counselors and young adults, they came through my daycare and Angie was their first teacher. She taught them how to write," Crowder said. "They kind of grew up with us and I guess we just weren't through. Fate just said, 'No, you're not through with them.'"

Kenya Logan, 17th Street Association board member and Belleville School District 118 board member, said a community should come together like 17th Street has to care for its children.

"Earlier, you always had your community and your family helping you to raise your children and people have gotten away from that," Logan said. "I believe you have to have a village to raise a child and that's just how I see it. I think that's what we're trying to give back. We're trying to teach everybody that because people have lost it. That's what I see us trying to do and I love it."

Crowder said she follows the same philosophy because it made her who she is.

"I had a great childhood. I grew up in the South in the rural areas. We were community-minded," Crowder said. "This thing about 'it takes a village,' it's true -- I'm a product of it. I'm very passionate about the community as a whole because I know if we have a good community, our children will have good neighborhoods to be raised in."

Brown said she applied for grants, asked for donations and looked for sponsors this year so that she could help out as many families as possible through a scholarship program.

Basic Initiative was the biggest supporter so far this summer, Crowder said.

Brown said other major contributors include Peace Luther Church Endowment Agency, St. Clair County Medical Society and District 118, which donates the facility for use during the camp sessions.

In 2012, the camp had 160 children, and that has gone up to 170 this year. The July session for Summer Fun Camp is already full for this year. The group's website is www.the17thst.org.

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