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California City Solutions: Eureka Offers Free Summer Camp for Low-Income Families

July 2, 2015
This story is part of an ongoing series featuring Helen Putnam Award entries.
The 2014 entries are available on the League’s website as a resource for cities in a searchable database called California City Solutions. Eureka’s Camp Cooper was submitted in 2014 for the Enhancing Public Trust, Ethics, and Community Involvement award category.
The city of Eureka almost two decades ago created a summer camp program to keep local students learning and active when school is out. According to the 2012 U.S. Census, 22.1 percent of Eureka’s population lives below the poverty line. Eureka’s low-income families often have to scramble to find affordable childcare during the summer. Camp Cooper is a free summer camp program for youth ages 5 to 12. The camp also provides a Leaders-in-Training (L.I.T.) Program for youth ages 13 to 17 that are mentored by recreation leaders who teach valuable leadership skills.
According to the National Summer Learning Association, most students lose approximately two months of grade level equivalency in mathematical computation skills during the summer without exposure to educational learning activities. Low-income students also lose over two months in reading achievement, while students from higher income level families make slight gains.
More than half of the gap between lower- and higher-income youth achievement is due to access to summer learning opportunities. This can contribute to the fact that low-income youth are less likely to graduate from high school or enter college. Additionally, the city learned that many children — particularly who are at high risk of obesity — gain weight more rapidly when they are out of school during summer break. l.
The city of Eureka started its free Summer Recreation Program almost two decades ago with a focus on personal and academic development as well as healthy lifestyle. Camp Cooper annually accommodates up to 50 youth per day offering a full-day of programs that feature character building strategies. The camp is held at a public park, rotating every few years.
The developed strategic priorities for the summer camp program include:
  • Provides New Options for Infrastructure Investment and Economic Development. Camp Cooper’s no-cost program and daytime hours provide a valuable free childcare option for working families to take advantage of, enabling them to maintain stable work and contribute to the local economy, while not having to impact any local government financial aid. 
  • Expands Reform of Pension and Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB) Policies to Better Contain Long-Term Costs. Camp Cooper’s Summer Camp Program staff, including its coordinating staff, is classified as temporary employees. This enables the city to offer quality programming to low-income families and have no or very little fiscal impact on OPEB. 
  • Build Effective Partnerships to Help Respond to Growing Community Needs. Camp Cooper has a standing partnership with Food-for-People, which provides free sack lunches to low income children whose families cannot afford the additional cost of the extra meals once school is out. This partnership enables the city to provide lunch at no-cost to the 50 youth who participate in camp each day. 
Camp recreation leaders are carefully recruited and screened by their level of motivation to give back to the community and have a positive impact on youth. Once selected, staff members go through a very specific training; one which not only focuses on policy and procedure, but also empowers staff to create environments where youth feel safe, are celebrated for their individuality, and are where they want to be.
Camp Cooper offers an opportunity for personal growth. The camp’s L.I.T. program gives youth students who have aged out of camp the opportunity to learn and implement many of the same skills and responsibilities of a recreation leader. These young residents have learned the value of receiving the free summer services and then given the opportunity to provide those same services to the next generation.
Camp Cooper’s schedule includes both physical and educational activities that promote continuous learning and a healthy active lifestyle during the summer.
Several former campers were so influenced by their experience that they returned as city employees after college. Former Campers and L.I.T’s include the current recreation coordinator, who oversees the city’s Adorni Recreation Center; the current recreation activities coordinator, who coordinates the city’s G.U.L.C.H. Teen Program; and the summer camp coordinator who returns to Eureka each summer to serve the program.
Despite budget cuts, Eureka has continued to invest in quality recreation programs that will improve educational outcomes and assist in developing the full potential of youth in the community. Camp Cooper empowers families to maintain jobs, and spend the quality time with their children when they are not working.
Participating students learn the value of making positive connections and building character and self-esteem because they are the direct benefactors as campers. Long time campers transfer their experiences into valuable and tangible skills in the L.I.T. program. These experiences in camp have an overall impact in our community as it sends the campers and L.I.T’s out into the world as young adults who pose a set of skills and mindset to positively contribute to the community.

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