Children are back in school, and for many of them, recollections of their summer fun are becoming a distant dream with each passing day. But for 40 recipients of the Gándara Center’s Aventura! Summer Camp Scholarship, memories were made in July and August that will last a lifetime. Scholarship recipients were given the opportunity to participate in either the city of Springfield’s Summer Enrichment Programs or Camp STAR Angelina in Forest Park.

“I made a lot of new friends,” said 14-year-old Hanna on a hot August day at Camp STAR Angelina. “My favorite part of camp was playing sports and games like capture the flag. It was a lot of fun.”

The Aventura! Summer Camp Scholarship Program, a partnership between Gándara and the city of Springfield’s Department of Parks, Buildings, & and Recreation Management (DPBRM), was created last year to offer Springfield youth age 5-18 the opportunity to attend one summer camp session for free. The scholarship has been offered for two straight summers, and its success was evident during a recent visit to Camp STAR Angelina. Despite the heat, there was no lack of energy and enthusiasm among the campers, who participated in a plethora of extracurricular activities and got the chance to enjoy the outdoors with nature hikes and swimming pool sessions.

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Hanna’s sister, 10-year-old Gabriella, said she especially enjoyed her group’s field trips, which included the thrills of zip-lining, negotiating a high ropes course, and paddling a kayak at Camp Wilder in Springfield’s Sixteen Acres neighborhood. Plant identification was also a part of the campers’ activities during nature hikes in the woods of Forest Park. “I learned what poison ivy looks like and how to avoid it,” she said. And what would Gabriella be doing if she weren’t at summer camp? “Probably sitting at home and watching TV,” she said with a shrug.

Hanna and Gabriella’s mother, June, said the Camp STAR Angelina experience boosted both her daughters’ self-confidence. “I really appreciated this scholarship. My girls loved camp. It was great for their self-esteem—they tried new things and they learned how to deal different situations and how to get along with kids they didn’t know,” she said. “Every day, when they got home, they talked about camp constantly, and I enjoyed hearing how their days went. It’s tough to find affordable opportunities for kids to have fun when school isn’t in session, so this scholarship definitely helped. And I liked the door-to-door service. I don’t drive, so having them picked up and dropped off also helped a lot.” June said her daughters particularly liked the camp’s “theme days,” especially “fun hat” day, “fun hair” day, and “tie dye t-shirt making” day. “We’re already looking forward to next year’s summer camp,” she said.

Eight-year-old Rosaria’s favorite theme day was “Halloween” day, when she came to camp in a unicorn costume. Chris, 10, was adamant about his favorite day: “water games” day. “I liked getting wet and going on the slip-and-slide,” he said—although a close second for him was “ooey gooey” day, during which campers made their own “slime.” Six-year-old Ruby thought the best part of camp was “relaxing in the pool.” Nine-year-old Noemi and her sister Leila, 10, also liked swimming the most, although Noemi enjoyed arts and crafts as well, and Leila was a big fan of the group nature walks. “I was great to learn about the different kinds of trees and animals,” said Leila. “I also saw turtles and ducks in the pond. I saw a deer running once, and we found deer footprints in the mud.”

DPBRM Director Patrick Sullivan said his department is proud of the partnership formed with the Gándara Center to ensure Springfield children have a safe place to play and grow emotionally during the summer season. “The Gándara Center has opened many avenues for families by extending the ability to attend Camp STAR Angelina,” he said. “The Aventura! Scholarship has opened new doors for families that may not have the opportunity to send their children to a day camp,” he said.“We look forward to many more years of working with Gándara and creating new opportunities for families.”

Summer camp is a unique situation during which kids engage in a community of peers and learn how to interact in a less-structured environment than school, according to Krista Stott, DPBRM therapeutic recreation specialist. “They get to be themselves, join a community, and have fun,” said Stott. “The Aventura! Scholarship is a great idea, because many of these kids come from low-income households, and some of our campers are in foster care. Without the scholarship, many of them wouldn’t be able to attend.”

Laura Walsh, therapeutic recreation coordinator for the same city department, said that because Camp STAR Angelina is an inclusive program that serves children with and without disabilities who learn to accept one another for who they are, “and all the kids understand and support each other no matter what,” she said.

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The genesis for the Aventura! program was the Gándara Center reaching out to parents in the community: many of them said they lacked not only child care during the summer months, but also fun, educational, and safe activities for their children. “The scholarship is very appreciated, because we are looking to keep costs down as much as we can, and we know that camp can be a financial hardship,” said Walsh. “We love that we have been able to partner with Gándara for the last couple of years to include as many campers as possible.”

Aventura! would not be possible without the support of Baystate Health through its Community Benefits Program. “Baystate Health is proud to support Aventura! and help to provide the opportunity for Springfield youth, with limited to no financial resources, to access a memorable and rewarding summer camp experience,” said Annamarie Golden, director of Community Relations, Baystate Health. “Summer camps help to build all around resilience in children and foster new friendships, confidence, independence, and a sense of belonging. Most importantly, summer camps provide parents and caregivers with peace of mind that their child is being socially, emotionally, and physically engaged in a safe setting.”

Last year the Gándara Center awarded 105 scholarships. It awarded 40 this year and the agency’s hope is to expand scholarship opportunities to the 2017 level—and even higher—so in the summer it can provide a variety of healthy, educational, and recreational opportunities to even more children and youth in the community. Your donations will help make the summer camp a reality for young people whose families may not be able to afford it.

For more information on Aventura! Scholarship opportunities for campers—or to donate to the scholarship—contact Lisa Brecher, director of communications and development, at 413-296-6214 or lbrecher@gandaracenter.org.

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