Program marks 30 years of summer fun for kids

VERGENNES — This year marks important milestones in the full-day summer camps of the Mary Johnson Children’s Center. The program has operated for 30 years in Middlebury, 25 years in Bristol, and 15 in Vergennes.
Maybe 30 years ago, kids weren’t wiring bananas into piano keyboards or making solar robots, as they’ll do this summer? But then as now, the pioneering program provides an important resource for local families.
“The mission of our program is to serve the needs of families in Addison County, the family and the child in the family,” said Anne Gleason, Mary Johnson’s longtime school-age programs coordinator. “Now there are lots of different summer programs for kids for different purposes. Our mission is about strengthening families by providing a fun and safe place.
“For parents, everybody at three o’clock has said, ‘Where are my kids? I wonder what they are doing? Are they on their way home?’ Having a place for them to be taken care of in the world is a good thing. It takes a strain off mom or dad.”
Geared to the needs of working parents, the MJCC summer school-age program serves children ages six through 12. It runs for eight weeks (June 19-Aug. 11), five days a week, 7:45 a.m.-5:30 p.m. It also includes breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack.
Families can opt for one day — or for the whole eight weeks.
This summer, the program has more than 300 children enrolled at its three sites: 130 in Middlebury, 110 in Bristol and 75 in Vergennes, although enrollment varies day to day, said Gleason.
The Middlebury program continues to be based out of Mary Hogan Elementary School, the Bristol program at Bristol Elementary and the Vergennes program at the St. Peter’s Church parish hall.
While parents and the professionals who develop and lead program activities care about things like safety, enrichment and social-emotional development, to reach kids it has to be fun, Gleason said.
“We want to get them up and doing something different, take them to different places,” she said. “So over the years, we’ve taken them bowling or ice skating or to a Lake Monster’s ball game.”
Gleason relates a story of a little girl walking beside her one day who said, “Thank you for taking us swimming.”
“They don’t get to go if somebody doesn’t take them,” said Gleason. “So we try to provide those experiences: going to the state park, making root beer, going strawberry picking.”
Activities vary, depending on location. In Middlebury, campers go to the town pool every day and play at Branbury State Park’s Lake Dunmore every week. Last week in Middlebury, kids went to see the lunchtime shows at Festival on-the-Green. Gleason said each location strives to use the resources in its own community.
Every year activities are geared around different themes week to week. Popular returning themes include “Getting to Know You,” “Olympics Week” and “MJCC’s Got Talent.” New themes for this year include “Mind over Matter” and “Let’s Make a Masterpiece.” Mind over Matter activities focus on building, inventing, engineering and experimenting. Alongside the tinkering around with the aforementioned banana pianos and solar robots, kids can build elaborate marble runways or model engines with working gears.
Let’s Make a Masterpiece activities include mask-making, painting, drawing, collage, puppetry and theater.
Each site offers music — complete with dance parties — and taekwondo.
But alongside these opportunities, Gleason and her hand-picked staff have other objectives in mind.
“I think everybody should find a friend,” she said. “That to me would be the goal of the summer.”
The program focuses a lot on kids’ social-emotional development, said Gleason, and provides staff with specialized training in how to keep kids safe — and how to spot kids who might be in difficulty.
“The important thing is to create a community of people who are going to listen to kids and take care of them wherever they are,” said Gleason.
The program also works together with the Department for Children and Families to enroll children who are in foster homes or otherwise under DCF custody or care. The program can also coordinate different kinds of visitation, including supervised visitation by a noncustodial parent.
This summer the program is part of a social-emotional skills pilot project, developed by Vermont Afterschool Inc.
Gleason also believes that it’s important for kids to give back to the community, so summer activities have typically included things like sewing dog toys for the Homeward Bound animal shelter or making cookies for community lunches.
For Gleason, a large part of building a welcoming and happy environment for kids is about choosing the right staff. She wants kids to be able to learn about different parts of themselves, maybe discover something they really like or that they are really good at.
“We have a diverse staff — on purpose,” Gleason said. “They’re different ages; they come from different backgrounds. So a kid on any different day can find somebody who might spark up something that they’re interested in.
“When I interview people, I explain that there are some kids who are exactly interested in the things you’re interested in and there are kids that are looking for something to be interested in. You might be the one who gets them interested in music or in beading or in making computer animation or whatever.
Gleason also looks for different personality types, so all kids can find someone with whom they feel comfortable.
“There are shy kids, so we have shy counselors. I hire people who are shy because there’ll be kids who will be absolutely drawn to them.”
Gleason said that for older age groups, especially, the program tries to leave room for more child choice and voice in activities and give youngsters room to pursue interests and “perseverate.”
Chuckling just a bit, Gleason admits, however, that sometimes child choice only offers so much direction.
“If you ask them what they want to eat, they say more pizza. If you ask them where they’d like to go, they say Disney World,” she acknowledged.
Nevertheless, for Gleason the program’s main task it to “create an atmosphere where kids can be safe and where they understand that there’s somebody who cares for them outside of their family. For me that kind of is a link to making the future. It builds the community for the future.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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