Reflections From Say Yes to Education Summer Camp

SU College Student Witnesses South Side Students’ Excitement for Learning

Being a Syracuse University student, it can be easy to go the whole four-plus years of school without ever leaving the comfort of the university area. There are, of course, the occasional trips to Armory Square or the Carousel Center, or to the mega-stores in the suburbs. But such instances of leaving the university, though they may bring you to various locations within the limits of Syracuse, do nothing to bring you any closer to, or any further inside of, the city of Syracuse.

I was such a student before my time working with Say Yes to Education, an experience that really brought me to Syracuse’s South Side for the first time. Since February when I began working for Say Yes, I have had the opportunity to meet many members of the South Side community — most notably, the children at Meachem and Elmwood schools. Specifically I volunteered at Meachem’s after-school program in the spring and at Elmwood’s Camp Leadership this past summer. While I worked and played alongside these children, I was drawn to their personalities, which were more diverse and dynamic than I could have imagined. The students were loving and mischievous, concerned and carefree, all at the same time. I also gained an appreciation for how receptive they are to all that goes on around them: in the classroom, within the greater school-wide community and in their homes. It was also refreshing how anxious they were to share with me everything they observed and felt.

I was also fortunate to know members of the South Side community in other ways. Several of the other college interns involved in the summer camp had grown up on the South Side and attended some of the same schools that we were working with. They understood the neighborhood dynamics and were able to offer ways of reaching out to students that I wouldn’t have otherwise thought of. I also spent time observing teachers who have been long-standing members of the South Side community. Again, I was shown ways to reach students that were sensitive to the children’s vulnerabilities, yet firm and effective.

I can see and feel the impact that Say Yes is having on many of the children in the program. Students were involved in challenging projects, and their enthusiasm for and engagement in their projects was exciting to see. The children’s enthusiasm was contagious for other students as well as teachers. By the end of camp, the energy in the school was tangible.

There were some students who were utterly transformed as a result of their engagement with their projects. One child, who began camp as a brooding, cloistered student who refused to participate in almost any activity, finished the camp exuding confidence and eagerness to be a leader for our final project.

I know each camp counselor had parallel experiences.

I’ve also realized that Say Yes has the potential to reach many more as it expands to include more dynamic programming for more age groups. Older students that were not involved in the Say Yes summer camp but were still around the school, the brothers and sisters of campers as well as students taking classes through the Urban Teachers Calendar (UTC) summer school, told me they would have wanted to be in the Say Yes summer camp. Between the students that are currently involved in Say Yes to Education programming and the students who want to be, there are a lot of young South Side residents who are excited about education.

There was one moment that stands out: a moment that will, at least for me, always personify my time as a Say Yes to Education teacher. In our Entrepreneurship Class, we were planning and preparing to open a lemonade stand on the final day of camp, when all the schools were to meet at Thornden Park to celebrate their work and display their final projects. The students in our class decided entirely on their own to donate the profits to the Van Duyn School.

To me, this demonstrated their sense of community and their compassion, and I was never so proud of them as I was the day we handed that money over to Van Duyn.  Our class learned a little bit about what it takes to start a business and had a lot of fun working at the Say Yes Lemonade Oasis. But most importantly, they felt the satisfaction of making a worthwhile contribution to their community.

Every day when I left the school, I felt that I had changed in some way. Maybe it was something small, like a child making me feel good with a kind word, or in a larger way, like seeing a positive breakthrough experience for another child; or by gaining improved understanding of children and the South Side community.

I believe that my Say Yes experience continues to affect me, and I don’t think I have reaped all the benefits and gifts the children have given me. If nothing else, working with those children has made me eager to get further inside the South Side community and inside the many diverse communities across Syracuse.

— Reflection by David Vincent Meinhart, a Say Yes to Education teacher and a junior at Syracuse University double majoring in writing and rhetoric; English and textual studies

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