Operation Shoestring Summer Camp for Jackson Kids Focuses on Health and Wellness

Operation Shoestring has been providing after-school and summer activities for Jackson kids for decades, but this year they’re doing things a little differently.

The new venture is called “Project Rise” and activities focusing on physical and mental health are dotted throughout the summer. This includes integrating wellness conversations into camp activities such as academic enrichment, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) activities, outdoor sports, swimming lessons, and mentoring programs.

This year’s camp serves approximately 125 students in grades three through five over a six-week period – free of charge.

Its programs during the summer and school year support children in the public school system of Jackson and the metro area. Jackson students are mostly from low-income families of color: 95% of students are black, and 73.8% of students receive free or reduced lunch.

For Laquinta Williams, the camp has been invaluable to her family. Williams is a single mother who works with Markeem and Akirahs, students at Walton Elementary School who also attend Operation Shoestring summer programs.

She believes the summer lineup is especially important to her son Markeem, whose father recently passed away.

“He likes talking to them, and he usually doesn’t like talking to people,” she said of the camp staff members. “He feels comfortable with them.”

She also said that the camp helped her to be able to work.

“That’s a lot of money to raise children without help,” she says. “…We appreciate everything. This is hands down the best service we’ve had. They even offer us breakfast when we drop off our children.

Looking after children is hard to do alone, she says, and in previous summers she has been paid for other summer camps and activities. Operation Shoestring’s free activities mean it won’t have that extra expense this year.

Operation Shoestring students listen to instructions before completing a mindfulness exercise during self-expression camp at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Ridgeland, Mississippi, Monday, June 13, 2022. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Robert Langford, executive director of Operation Shoestring, said the pressures exerted by the COVID-19 pandemic on communities of color, compounded by the immense stress caused by the 2020 killings of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and the movement of social justice that followed, created an urgent need within families across the country – especially in the community of Jackson.

Recent research shows that young people’s depressive and anxiety symptoms have doubled during the pandemic, with 25% of young people showing depressive symptoms and 20% anxiety symptoms.

Suicide rates among black children were rising even before the pandemic, and black children are now nearly twice as likely to die by suicide as white children, according to the US Surgeon General’s Advisory. And children from low-income families are two to three times more likely to develop mental health issues than those from high-income families — a startling statistic for a state like Mississippi, where about 30% of its children are poor. .

To address the need for mental health support, Operation Shoestring weaves “positive and assertive language” into its classrooms and activities, while focusing on physical health and well-being, Langford said.

The organization partnered with a dietitian from the University of Mississippi Medical Center to illustrate the importance of nutrition in overall well-being, such as conducting cooking and nutrition classes and creating healthy recipes .

Camp children will also participate in a baking class at Urban Foxes, a local family bakery.

Langford said Operation Shoestring values ​​being able to provide opportunities for students to explore outdoor spaces, which they do through partnerships with St. Andrew’s Episcopal School and the Pearl River Keepers, a organization that works to protect the biodiversity of the Pearl River through cleanups and water testing and monitoring.

At St. Andrew’s, students are encouraged to participate in different activities, such as basketball, soccer or wellness lessons.

During a wellness class on Monday, Lauren Powell, wellness director and high school counselor at the school, asked the children to think about what it means to practice wellness and be mindful – including laughter, physical activity, dancing and positive affirmations. Students then created a drawing incorporating five to six positive characteristics about them, such as courageous, curious, intelligent and kind.

Lauren Powell, St. Andrew’s Episcopal School Upper Class Counselor and Director of Wellness, left, helps Operation Shoestring students do a mindfulness exercise during self-expression camp at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Ridgeland, Miss. on Monday, June 13, 2022. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Students like to do the cupid shuffle and other dances to wake up and get ready before any other activity, she said, and the dances set the tone for campers to be more expressive.

Powell said she enjoys working with this age group because they are able to express their emotions without embarrassment.

When asked how to deal with children who may come from different backgrounds, Powell explained that St. Andrew’s uses what is called “asset framing,” a way of allowing children to be first. defined by their strengths and aspirations before their challenges or deficits.

“These children come from very rich cultures and very, very rich family traditions,” she said.

Operation Shoestring also continues its tradition of offering support to parents of campers. It provided cash support to families in need during the height of the pandemic and now runs two separate support group sessions for parents, one at the Cultivation Food Hall and the other at the Ecoshed.

“We are really looking at how we can build a fair world for everyone. And we have a special responsibility in Mississippi because of our past to do what we can with what we have where we are,” Langford said. “So we see ourselves as an organization, as a place to provide direct service and broker relationships with other people to build a healthier, more just, and more compassionate world.”

— Article credit to Allison Santa-Cruz of Mississippi Today —

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