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Camp St. Vincent continues to enrich summers of children experiencing homelessness

Thirteen-year-old Zahra Gibbs helps Camp St. Vincent participants with math outdoors in Patterson Park. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

The final week of Camp St. Vincent is often the hardest.

Since June 24, St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore has brightened the summer of more than 250 children experiencing homelessness. Based in Patterson Park, its free, eight-week camp will conclude Aug. 9, with what veteran staffers know will be an emotional farewell.

“The hardest job I’ve ever had is parting from the kids,” said Jamar Willis, a behavior specialist at the Stadium School in Baltimore City who is wrapping up his eighth year on the staff of Camp St. Vincent. “You don’t want to say goodbye, but you don’t want to see them again next year. You want them to branch off, and be in a better situation.”

Camp St. Vincent begins with classroom time designed to prevent what educators describe as “summer learning loss.” It mixes in meals and snacks, recreation, enrichment in the form of field trips, and counseling for children whose day might begin with a bus picking them up at a shelter or transitional housing, such as Sarah’s Hope, Marian House or the House of Ruth.

“We are the only camp (in Baltimore) that exclusively serves children who are experiencing homelessness,” said Rebecca Horner, in her fourth year as camp director. “We work to create a schedule where everybody gets, math, reading, and then pool time and a special (class) every day.”

She also referenced the camp’s “social emotional curriculum,” where the goals including building coping mechanisms for the serious challenges facing many of the children, who may have witnessed or been a victim of abuse and/or addiction.

“Kids who are helped to build resiliency have that hope of having a stable adulthood, of finishing school, of being in secure and stable relationships and housing,” Horner said. “It’s not so much not having the experience; it’s being able to bounce back from whatever you are experiencing.

Brenda Solis, a rising sophomore at Mercy High School and a first-year volunteer at Camp St. Vincent, talks with camp participants in Patterson Park. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

“It just takes a couple of really positive connections in a kid’s life to help them develop the skills of resiliency. We hope that we’re one of them. … We’ve had some kids who used to be campers come and volunteer with us. And that’s always awesome to see.”

This summer, some of those connections were provided by student volunteers, including students from Maryvale Preparatory School in Timonium and Mercy High School in Baltimore.

Brenda Solis, a rising sophomore at Mercy, said she “didn’t know what to expect” in her first experience as a Camp St. Vincent volunteer, but found that the children warmed to her.

“They wouldn’t tell me their names at first,” she said, “but after a while they start giving you hugs.”

Paul Davis has roots at St. Augustine Parish in Elkridge and has spent his entire career teaching drama in Title I schools, which have a large concentration of students from low-income households.

On a morning in late July, he oversaw a prince and princess-themed skit for first- and second-graders, with the underlying message of facing their fears.

Camp St. Vincent drama teacher Paul Davis teaches first and second graders how to act like trees in the wind during theater class. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

“I teach courage through theater,” Davis said. “When they arrive (in his class), I know that they’ve eaten and some of their emotional needs have been addressed. If I can build on what the other teachers have done for them, then we’ve had a successful day.”

While Camp St. Vincent partners with 14 area programs in providing everything from shoes to summer clothing – including swimsuits – it’s the human element that appears to most effect the campers.

“When the kids run up and give me a high-five,” Davis said, “that’s not because I’m a good teacher. That’s because they know I care.”

“Sometimes,” said Willis, the veteran staffer, “the kids just want someone to talk to.”

In its 112th year, Camp St. Vincent continues its legacy combating the impact homelessness has on children.

“You see the kids blossom,” said Horner, the camp director. “They come in defensive, but they’re able to spend time with us and come out of their shell, gain some of that confidence that we hope they bring with them as they go into their next experiences.”


Paul McMullen contributed to this article.