Dominic Johnson and Leila Labaci were splashing around Monday morning in a pool at the Wilson Family Y as part of their day camp program at the Y. Leila, 10, is enjoying her first year at day camp, especially given the alternative.
“I would probably be doing nothing,” she said; “nothing” means watching Disney Channel shows through Netflix on her phone.
With school out, summer programs are filling the void of structure and activity and, in some cases, the nutrition children might otherwise miss. Programs such as the Y’s offer kids a chance to be active and parents a better, sometimes cheaper, alternative to day care. Other programs are stepping up to fill the void of free and reduced-price lunches and breakfasts that many children rely on during the school year.
In six counties, the Family Y has about 1,500 kids enrolled in day camps, many of them traditional but some specialty camps such as dance or journalism, said Millie Huff, the community relations director. About 70 percent of those kids are receiving some type of financial assistance to go to camps, which is a big incentive for families to choose that over traditional day care or just leaving the kids by themselves, she said.
“Certainly, it has those elements of being healthy, of being stimulated, of keeping them physically active during the summer,” she said. “But it also has that element for us of providing a service to the family by providing consistent and affordable and safe childcare for the kids as well.”
That activity is important because children tend to gain weight two to three times faster over the summer than they do while in school, according to research from Ohio State University.
Kids are less active and are free to graze constantly, which they can’t do while in school.
Other children face the opposite problem, said Julie Miller, the executive director of Columbia County Community Connections.
“It can be two things,” she said. “It can be that they have access to food and they eat junk all day. Or, now that they’re not in school, they don’t have access to lunch and breakfast the way they did during the school day. And many of them don’t get a good meal in the summer.”
The group is teaming up with Action Ministries to help feed kids this summer through the Smart Lunch/Smart Kid program and already has 330 enrolled, Miller said.
Even in a wealthier county, there is need that is not always obvious, she said.
“It’s a hidden problem,” Miller said. “People don’t want to talk about it. We found that a lot of the families that we served last summer were on the outside a very middle class family. But what was happening was they were keeping up their house payments and their car payments and keeping the lights on and all of that kind of stuff didn’t leave them any money for anything else.
“They were just really struggling.”
Golden Harvest Food Bank supports a number of agencies that do similar things, said Derek Dugan, the community relations director.
“Agencies of Golden Harvest provide a lot of summer feeding programs,” he said.
The need is obvious when looking at the percentage of children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
In Columbia County, it is 33 percent, but in Richmond County it is nearly 78 percent and in Burke County it is nearly 84 percent, according to Annie E. Casey Foundation data.
Some kids are helped by finding a sport that can carry them from spring to fall seasons, or getting active and learning skills.
Augusta Arsenal Soccer Club’s popular 3v3 program, with groups of three players pitted against each other in a type of game, starts June 17. There is also a high school program starting around the same time, and both offer plenty of exercise, said Tom Norton, the director of coaching.
“It’s an hour and 15 minutes (twice a week), and it is pretty much going all the time,” he said. “They’re in constant motion.”
That activity has other side benefits for children and parents alike.
“Anything you can do to stay active, stay off the sofa, get out from the Xbox or the television set and stay out of trouble,” Norton said.