By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — Summer break can be tough for students and parents facing financial distress, according to Vergie Blackwell, assistant director of Progressive Baptist Church’s Camp Excel Leadership Academy. Without free or assisted school breakfasts and lunches, many children worry about going hungry. Parents, faced with the cost of childcare, may feel forced to leave their children unattended or with inexperienced caregivers.
Camp Excel aims to alleviate those concerns. For the past six years, the program has provided disadvantaged youths ages five to 13 years old educational opportunities, life skills training, fun, companionship and nutritious meals and snacks. “We teach them how to work with others, communicate with others, how to help each other,” Blackwell said.
Like the parents who send their children to Camp Excel, the camp, too, struggles to make ends meet each year. The day camp, which depends on a volunteer staff, costs $30-60 per child per week. Sometimes the fee is waived, if the child demonstrates great need. Blackwell noted that this cost is much more affordable for most parents than childcare, but the low cost also means that Progressive Baptist has to subsidize at least two-thirds of the actual per-child cost of camp. Additionally, some children who do not attend the camp come for meals because they are hungry; Camp Excel does not turn them away.
About four years ago, Progressive Baptist became a meal truck site for the Davenport School District, and that helped, but even then, that only covered eight of the 12 weeks in which Davenport public school children are out of school, Blackwell said. Coming up with funds for food for the remaining four weeks was still tough, but camp program organizers always managed somehow.
Thanks to the generosity of CRS Rice Bowl donors in the Diocese of Davenport, the program received a $1,000 grant last summer to help offset costs. “It was such a blessing,” Blackwell said. “It came at just the right time.”
Director Matt McDowell heard about the CRS Rice Bowl grant program through Diocese of Davenport Social Action volunteer Loxi Hopkins, who leads the Rice Bowl campaign. Hopkins encouraged McDowell and Blackwell to apply for a grant; one-fourth of diocesan Rice Bowl collections go to local hunger-alleviating organizations each year.
Hopkins said of Camp Excel: “They are reaching a group of kids who live in one of the poorest sections of town. They are teaching the kids to be self-sufficient, showing them that they have a future.”
The grant has helped Camp Excel provide two meals and a snack per day. The program’s organizers also applied for and received a $5,000 grant from the St. Vincent Home Corp. to help expand the program.
The campers receive nourishment in other areas, as well. Children are tutored in math, reading and other subjects by volunteers, some of whom are retired school teachers. All volunteer instructors are CPR trained. Camp graduates often come back to help out at the camp – something Hopkins said is invaluable. “It gives the older kids a bigger sense of self-worth to be able to serve the community, and it’s good for the (campers) to see kids who are staying out of the gangs and violence that surround them.”
Campers also have the opportunity to take swimming lessons at the YMCA and attend basketball camp and a communications camp at St. Ambrose University in Davenport. The youths learn life skills like cooking and gardening, and receive anti-bullying training. At the end of the summer, campers take a field trip. Last year, they went to Shedd Aquarium and Navy Pier in Chicago; Blackwell mentioned that the children who attend the camp often don’t have the opportunity to go on vacations with their families.
Blackwell said youths in the camp have been exposed to “a lot of negativity,” and camp is a place where they can feel safe and supported by the community. While the camp is not a “cure all” for all the difficulties a child may face, “I want that kid to leave camp different than when they came in.”
2016 Rice Bowl grant recipients
The following organizations received the 25 percent share of diocesan Rice Bowl collections in 2016 for hunger-related causes: Agape Center, Bettendorf; Concerned DeWitt Citizens, DeWitt; Friendly House, Davenport; Henry County Help to Others (H2O), Mt. Pleasant; Information, Referral & Assistance Services, Clinton; North Liberty Community Pantry, North Liberty; Camp Excel Leadership Academy (Progressive Baptist Church), Davenport; Project Renewal, Davenport; Riverside Community Food Pantry at St. Mary, Riverside; Sacred Heart Cathedral, Davenport; Sacred Heart Parish, Newton; St. James Social Action Committee, Washington; St. Thomas More Social Action Committee, Coralville; The Diversity Service Center of Iowa, Muscatine; The Lord’s Cupboard of Jefferson County, Fairfield; and Helping Hands Food Pantry, Knoxville.