Smile Politely

One People’s Summer Arts Camp offers connection through creativity

There’s a new(ish) summer youth art camp in town, and maybe that strikes you in a similar fashion as an announcement of a new bar in downtown Champaign, or a new tree in Urbana. One People’s Summer Arts Camp, however, has several unique elements that made me sit up and say “Oh. Wow.” For one, it happens in the evening hours, secondly, it offers free dinner, and third, that free word applies to the whole thing (including t-shirt). 

Evening hours might strike you as odd, if like me, you have an idea of summer camp as a place for working parents to stash kids during the day while they go off and make money. On the other hand, experience told Camp Director Michelle Adeoye that the opposite was true, reminiscing that she missed out on summer camps during her youth because drop-off and pick-up times weren’t convenient for her parents’ schedules. Another line of reasoning states that many students have obligations of their own during the summer day — whether it’s a different camp or park program, a part-time job, or looking after younger siblings while parents work — but once the evening hours roll around they might be free to follow a creative pursuit. In this regard, it should come as no surprise that the hours between dinner and sunset are times when it benefits everyone to have some kind of programming for the tween demographic.

Each day at camp is three hours long, from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., with the first hour featuring a free dinner provided for all campers and volunteers. For the camp director, this aspect was non-negotiable: “When we started thinking about the camp,” stated Michelle, firmly, “I had two rules: it had to be free, there was no way it couldn’t be free, and we had to feed them.” For her, it was a point of access, and kids needed that opportunity to have a good meal as part of community building and nurturing. Thanks to the fundraising skills of the One People organization, all the food for the meals has been donated, making it easy to offer a free meal to all participants.

The camp space, inside Garden Hills Elementary, has also been graciously donated by Unit4. The kids have a cafeteria to eat in, a gymnasium to dance in, a stage to sing on, an art space to create in, a music room to drum in, and classrooms to write in. At the beginning of the week, each camper gets to choose an artistic “breakout session”, with the understanding that by Friday, they will be exhibiting a finished product in that discipline. That final day of camp will be a friends-and-family day of performance and demonstration. During the usual dinner hour, the visual artists will display their works on a “gallery walk”, then the next two hours will feature a youth-version of “The Lounge”:

  • Vocal performance: all vocal performance students will perform as part of a large choir
  • Dance: one large-group performance and several small-groups will perform a dance in a style of the students’ choosing (usually hip-hop)
  • Drumming: this is the first year for bucket-drumming, so large or small groups are TBD.
  • Writing: poetry-slam style performance of stories, poems or raps

The Lounge” is actually how this all began, as it is One People’s signature fundraiser that’s been happening roughly quarterly since 2013. Five townie friends — Michelle & Blessing (siblings), Larissa, Jennifer and Marcela — all decided they needed a creative outlet, even though none of them “thought of themselves as artists, but wanted to keep nurturing this part of ourselves,” says Michelle. One of her co-creators and directors, Mallory Morris reveals: “I think the major motivation was the realization that kids, like adults, have something to offer and they just need a platform. Michelle proposed the idea of doing a Lounge for students, and somehow that idea quickly morphed into a summer camp.”

Quickly doesn’t even begin to describe it. According to Michelle, she said that around the holidays, they began in earnest during January 2014, and by that July they held their first camp with 75 students. In my world, that just doesn’t happen, especially with artists at the helm, but the One People come from PR and event-planning backgrounds having to do with the arts.

That kind of kickassdom also is responsible for the fact that this program exists with no government funding, and supports one camper on a $20 donation (click the link – send a kid to free arts camp for a week with your beer money). “We’re so lucky,” she says, “other [state-funded] programs are having to significantly scale back or close.” Instead, this program is only growing: 75 campers in 2014, a little more than 100 in 2015, and after only 2 weeks of open registration for 2016, they already had 35 enrolled before going to middle school open houses. Mallory Morris points out, “The fact that the numbers at camp have grown in just three years’ time is a testament to how necessary it is to people.  I think this is what I hoped for plus so much more.”

Which brings me to another huge benefit of evening hours: more people are available to volunteer. Director Adeoye would encourage anyone who loves working with teens to apply, saying you don’t have to be artistic as long as you care about kids and want to help them feel supported in expressing themselves. “Even though it’s an arts program, and we want kids to be really good and skillful, the first thing is it is a youth program, and we want the kids to feel welcome, and really cared for.” Ms. Morris also shared that it’s a great outlet for people who want to work with kids but don’t get that in their daily jobs. “Since starting the camp I’ve transitioned from the classroom to a school administration position.  As a result I no longer get to interact with students in a direct learning environment […] so I greatly appreciate spending time with students and watching them hone their craft and present it to their family and friends.” Hands are needed as long as they are attached to hearts: there’s room for security detail, setup/teardown, food service, or just “wherever needed.”

Of course, if like many of our readers, you are artistic, that does help. According to Ms. Morris, “It’s such a great opportunity to not only pour your gifts and talents into our students but also to tap into your own artistry.  What a great reminder that the arts are for everyone and we all have something to create inside of us.” Volunteers will attend a 2-day workshop over the weekend of June 10-11 (Friday evening 6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m) & Saturday (10 a.m. – 4 p.m.) and volunteer during some or all of the evenings of camp week mid-July (part- and full-time positions available). If that sounds fun and feasible to you, consider lending your talents to a worthy cause this summer.

Sam Smith, Engagement Director for the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, reflects, “I believe that their work which flows out a generosity of spirit is a model for how to live in the world and to use one’s gifts in the service of humanity and a greater good. I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to watch them grow and to be strengthened by their zeal and commitment.” And it’s become apparent to the larger community, as One People’s Summer Arts Camp is a nominee for a 2016  STAR Expo Award, in the Community Partner category. 

As Smith went on to point out, it’s worthwhile to highlight a program that makes work, supports and develops the Garden Hills area. Those of us not-new to C-U maybe have a pre-formed notion of what that means, but Ms. Adeoye wanted to be sure to emphasize the diversity of the program, even though she “hate[s] that word, and the way it’s used. But I truly mean that this camp represents the diversity that C-U truly has: we have kids coming from every kind of cultural background; every financial/economic division; every educational level in their homes; even every artistic style, and the same also applies to the volunteers.” Mallory Morris chimes in with “One people is for the people.” So come see C-U, and be part of the One People.

One People’s Summer Arts Camp is open to children between the ages of 9-14. It is 100% free, includes a free meal, and runs from 5:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. July 11th – 15th. Register your kid or volunteer to help in some capacity, or just tell somebody about it.

Photos taken by Caesar Tata Talili and Josiah Peoples

About Rebecca Knaur…

As Arts Editor, rebecca has been quoted as saying “If there’s anything worth doing, it is doubly worth encouraging a child to try to do, and supporting their efforts.” She would volunteer in a heartbeat if this wasn’t her third job. Expose yourself to her repeated badgerings to make you volunteer for this and other things by following @rknaur on Twitter

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