It’s a sunny day in East Baltimore’s Patterson Park and Taj Logan, 12, and his buddies are playing outside. Squeals and giggles float on gentle breezes.
Camp Vincent is in session.
The camp, sponsored by St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore, provides fun and a daytime summer refuge for children 5 to 12 who don’t have permanent homes. Camp Vincent serves 120 children from June 18 to Aug. 10. Between 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays, the children are provided a safe, fun haven and their parents are provided time to get back on their feet financially, emotionally, and physically, authorities said.
According to Teresa Eaton, director of communications for St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore, the camp has been in existence for 104 years and once accommodated both homeless and low-income families. Because children with no permanent housing were in greater need of assistance, the program began to work exclusively with shelters, she said. According to an annual count of Baltimore’s homeless residents, there are about 4,100 children, women and men who go without permanent housing every night.
Everyday Taj and his siblings catch the bus to Camp St. Vincent along with children from several shelters in Baltimore city and county.
“I like the counselors and the camp is cool,” Taj said. If he wasn’t at camp, he’d just be sitting around “watching TV and reading books,” the young camper said.
Bright-eyed, full of life, and well-mannered, Taj enjoys going to the theater and said he has completed 25 books in the past month.
Camp Vincent provides children with t he opportunity to participate in traditional camp activities like visual arts and crafts, outside open play and to take dancing and acting lessons inside the St. Vincent de Paul Head Start building. The program places a strong focus on reading and math and each child is required to participate in exercises over the summer to keep them mentally sharp in preparation for the new school year.
They are treated to field trips every Friday and not one of the campers completes a day without taking a dip in the park’s public pool. Aside from arts and physical health activities, the camp includes programs to address social and emotional issues that may be affecting the children.
Each week is themed. For ‘Friendship” week, the campers made bracelets to celebrate their connection with others. They also played a game where they formed a circle and threw a ball across to one another, citing a compliment about the person to whom they threw.
“I like your glasses!” yelled one.
“You have a pretty smile!” grinned another as the ball moved around the loop.
“We’re trying to teach the kids different ways to cope and how to think through problems,” said Robert Spencer, assistant director of Camp St. Vincent. He has worked there for three years. “It gives them an outlet and an understanding that they have options when they’re going through emotions.
“It’s not always appropriate to lash out in anger or to be withdrawn when you’re going through an emotion,” he said. “It’s good to talk things out and express yourself without being combative or feeling like you’re being judged.”
The counselors volunteer their time and have palpable bonds with those in their care.
“I feel it’s necessary to come and give my time because these kids need a role model and someone to look up to,” said Sydney White. “I can just be here for the kids and let them know that they can do something in life, give back, and go further than they’re struggles.”
A rising college freshman and three-year veteran volunteer, White said she knows “the kids come from a different background but they are no different from other kids and they shouldn’t be treated different.”
Though the basic cost is free, parents are asked to contribute to weekly field trips, art and athletic supplies and the breakfast and lunch the children are served daily.
“Camp St. Vincent receives funding from Baltimore City Public Schools and Baltimore County Public Schools, but the majority of the funding comes from donations from private foundations and individuals who ‘sponsor’ children to attend Camp,” Eaton said. “The number of sponsors determines how many children attend each year and additional sponsors are always needed.”
She said the cost to sponsor a child to attend Camp St. Vincent is $380 for two weeks, $190 for one week or $38 for one day.
Because of the new setting and their current living situations, some of the students admit they are hesitant to reach to make friends.
“It’s better than I thought it would be. I was nervous at first because this was my first time being in a camp and there were people I didn’t know,” said Jasmine Oxendine, 12. “Now I’m used to it and I like it.”
Though initially reluctant to give Camp St. Vincent a try, Jasmine was won over when 50 kids were invited down to the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, formerly the Hippodrome Theatre, for a behind-the-scenes peak last week.
“I used to always ask my mom ‘What’s the Hippodrome?”‘ said Jasmine, whose mother explained it was a place where plays were performed. “I used to ask if we could go there. She’d say ‘We’ll see.’ But now I’ve already been.”
She added, beaming, “I like being here just to participate.”
Farewells are bittersweet here for counselors, according to Eaton, who says that at the end of each eight-week summer session counselors hope they won’t see the children again.
“The idea is that they don’t come the following summer because that means they are housed,” she said.