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Brenau summer program is feeding the minds and bodies of Hall County children
Brenau University student Ana Lopera reads to a group of children during a summer camp at the Melrose Apartment Community Center. - photo by Tom Reed

It’s an epidemic that’s widely known, but not greatly discussed.

Non-educators probably don’t notice it, but most teachers can attest to the high rate of "learning loss" that occurs when kids are out for summer vacation.

It’s a problem they can’t solve on their own, which is why a group of Brenau University thinkers decided to create a solution for students, by students.

Their challenge: Find solutions for community problems.

Their solution: RISE — Real Interactive Summer Camp Experience.

"Last November, the Brenau Social Entrepreneurship team was challenged to come up with ideas to address some of the social issues in our community," said Elizabeth Stephenson, a member of the team.

"We came up with education — specifically in the summer when kids aren’t doing anything to keep their brains going — and food insecurity.

"During our three-hour bus ride to the Sullivan Foundation Retreat, we came up with the idea for (RISE)."

The group’s goal was to bring summer camp, complete with educational activities and healthy food, to an area where it would be needed most.

Their idea won the team — Stephenson, Iben Nielsen, Pauline Atem and Zhura Doost — a few awards and recognition, but they weren’t content with stopping there.

"We knew as soon as we came up with the idea that we were going to make it happen," Stephenson said.

"If we had to postpone it for a year to line everything up, then that would’ve been OK, but we got our stuff together and applied for grants and partnered with people in the community and made it happen this summer."

The group raised close to $18,000 says Bill Lightfoot, who served as an adviser to the group.

"What started as the identification of a community problem has turned into a funded, student-led initiative that has the promise of growing significantly in the years to come," said Lightfoot, dean of Brenau University College of Business and Mass Communications.

To get things off the ground, the group partnered with the Gainesville Housing Authority to help recruit participants and the Georgia Mountain Food Bank to provide healthy meals.

They also drew support from Gainesville City Schools, Brenau and the Interactive Neighborhood for Kids.

"Basically what we do is make sure that whatever the kids learned during the previous year, they don’t forget it before school starts in the fall," Stephenson said.

"Every day, we start off with reading comprehension and language arts skills. Then the kids get recreational time so that they’re being active and healthy.

"In the afternoon, we work on math and writing skills."

The camp’s teachers are Brenau education majors. They are being assisted by teens from THINK, an initiative of District 2 Public Health designed to help young men become leaders and responsible citizens.

"Our (THINK) mentors have worked so hard to get us into positions to succeed in life and be leaders, so if they think it’s a good thing for us to do, I think it’s a good thing too," said Jacob Johnson, a rising Gainesville High School sophomore, about working at the camp.

"It’s a full day, but it’s been a good experience."

For the last seven weeks, 18 first- through third-grade students have gathered from 8:45 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday in the Melrose Apartments community building on Davis Street in Gainesville for the educational camp.

"Originally, we wanted to have a summer camp for any age group that wanted to come, but when we went to a social entrepreneurship competition, they said that we needed to scale it down in the beginning," Stephenson said.

"Since our teachers are early childhood education majors and it’s easier to get (elementary-aged) kids to come since their parents need a place to drop them off during the summer while they work, (this age group) was a convenient starting point."

RISE incorporated the usual summer camp activities like field trips and crafts with educational lessons filled with multiplication tables, parts of speech and reading comprehension.

The latter part may seem like roadblock to good times, but the students seem to like the blend.

"It’s fun," said 8-year-old Kimberly Reyes. "It’s good to be with other kids."

"I had fun, too," added Santiago Fuentes, a rising third-grader. "I learned middle school math."

Accelerated learning is just what the teachers had in mind when they created their lesson plans, which are based on the core curriculum standards that students receive in their regular classrooms.

But it’s not just the kids who are learning; so are the camp instructors like Ana Lopera. She says the experience will ultimately help her to be a better educator when she graduates from Brenau.

"This has definitely been like a real classroom experience," said Lopera, a rising junior in Brenau’s early childhood education program.

"It’s helped me to learn how to accommodate (all levels of learners)."

Organizers are using self-imposed tests to see if RISE makes the grade for the summer.

"We pre-tested them the first week to see where they’re at," Stephenson said. "And we’re going to do a post-test before our last day on Friday.

"We want to make sure they haven’t lost anything and hopefully, we’ll see some improvements."

Those final scores may prove to be crucial to the camp’s survival and growth.

"We definitely want to do this again," Stephenson said. "As long as we can prove that it’s been an effective camp, then we’ll be in a position to reapply for the same grants.

"We hope that we’ve created a replicable model because there’s a great need in the community for a summer program like this one."

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