Camden summer program spurs youths to higher education

"We're giving them the skills . . . and then we're showing them, yes, you can go to college," said Winona Wigfall, director of the program.
"We're giving them the skills . . . and then we're showing them, yes, you can go to college," said Winona Wigfall, director of the program. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 04, 2014

Dozens of teenagers gather in downtown Camden each day, sleepily dragging backpacks - voluntarily - onto buses at 7:45 a.m.

This is the summer?

It is when your summer camp goes beyond theme parks, camping, and an obstacle course.

Also on the agenda: homework, learning about slaughterhouses, and a trip to a landfill.

Rowan University's Champ/Gear Up summer program isn't your stereotypical summer camp. Then again, it's not supposed to be.

With the mission of supporting a path to college, the six-week summer program accepts dozens of middle and high school students from Camden each year, busing them from the city to day camp in an environmental center in Hammonton or the Rowan campus in Glassboro, where academic work is mixed with field trips and other activities that craftily combine learning with fun.

"We're guiding you through, but the whole time, we're embedding in your mind the importance of school, the importance of learning," said Derrick Gallashaw, 34, a Champ/Gear Up staffer who helps lead the program.

Last week at the environmental center, 44 high school students broke into four groups for a rotating series of academic sessions. One teacher discussed climate and weather, part of the program's environmental focus. Another teacher passed around vegetarian foods - "scary things," he called them - to introduce the students to food options many had never before heard of.

At one end of a long picnic table, Wanda Little guided her students through the process of making a hamburger, all the way back to growing the grain for the bun and the food for the cows. That led to a discussion of climate change - the amount of water, grain, and other resources that go into a hamburger can be huge, she said - and then the emotional and psychological effects of working in slaughterhouses.

But Little wasn't trying to ruin her students' days, even as 15-year-old Da'Mire Hurt announced her sadness for the workers.

"Don't be depressed eating a hamburger, but make a conscious decision. That's what it's all about," Little told her students.

"You're going to college, you're going to have to make decisions," she said. "Make educated decisions."

That assumption - "you're going to college" - is repeated over and over throughout the program, an effort to change the realities for kids who otherwise might never dream of higher education. In Camden, one in three adults over 25 has less than a high school degree or equivalent; just 8.3 percent have a bachelor's degree or higher, according to the latest data from the Census Bureau. Most of the students in the Rowan program will be the first in their families to attend college.

"We're giving them the skills, we're giving them the confidence, and then we're showing them, yes, you can go to college," said Winona Wigfall, director of the program, herself a camper in 1985, as a senior at Woodrow Wilson High School.

"We take our students out to show them what's out there, and they're going to come back and they're going to reshape the environment," she said, noting that many of the staffers and counselors were, like her, Camden natives and summer-program alumni. "We all graduated from high schools in Camden, we live in the same environment these students live in, and we're showing them, 'Yes, I live here, I went off to college, now I'm coming back and I'm giving back to the city.' "

Students pay nothing for the program, which is funded by a variety of sources, including the federal Department of Education, state College Bound Grant Program, the City of Camden, and Rowan University.

This year's summer program has 44 middle school students, 88 high school students split into two day-camp sets, and an additional 28 high school students in a largely separate, residential program on the Rowan campus in Glassboro.

When the campers break into groups, they are assigned a counselor, a college student (or recent graduate) who mentors them. Jahnel Tompkins, 22, saw the program's benefits firsthand as a camper and now hopes to pass them along.

"It was always fun, we went camping, things we don't do in Camden," she said. Going camping every summer was an experience classmates didn't get, said Tompkins, who graduated from Rowan University this year with a bachelor's degree from the law and justice program.

Another counselor, Anthony Wilkerson, 22, attended the program as well, in sixth grade at Riletta Twyne Cream Family School. He was shy at the time, he said, but he developed more confidence in himself and his abilities thanks to the mentors he found in the program. He also set his eyes on college, and now studies accounting at Camden County College.

"They basically made me understand that there's a bigger world outside of Camden," Wilkerson said. So it's his turn to give back.

"Now I see that I have the same chance to change their lives," said Wilkerson, whose 14-year-old sister, Anaya, is in her third year of the program. "If I can change one kid's life to put them in the right direction, that will be amazing to me."


jlai@phillynews.com

856-779-3220 @elaijuh

www.inquirer.com/campusinq

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