Tucked away behind the Kent County YMCA, off of Centerville Road, is Camp OK-WA-NESSETT, where children as young as three years old and up to 14 can spend nine weeks of their summer playing in the splash zone, canoeing in an on-campus pond, or take some time to rest in their indoor ‘balance center.’
This week, according to Kent YMCA executive director Julie Casimiro, is “advocacy week,” in which they’ve brought to the camp local and state officials to learn about their summer program in an effort to eventually get more funding to allow their hundreds of low-income kids to continue going there.
On Wednesday, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Congressman Jim Langevin, who said he was a camper at the YMCA when he was a kid, stopped by the camp to learn about the camp and its funding. Casimiro said that currently the Department of Human Services (DHS) pays for 250 of the 881 total kids this summer to be there.
YMCA of Greater Providence Chief Executive Officer Steve O’Donnell added that there are donors, such as the Champlin Foundation and Providence Journal Summertime Fund, who subsidize the camp fees for children as well, and he said that the DHS price is between $110 to $137 a week, whereas the usual camp fee for a week is $195 for Y members and $275 for non-members.
Camp operations director Lauren Utschig, who oversees Camp OK-WA-NESSETT, said that the camp has 140 total employees, ranging from 18-year old camp counselors to schoolteachers and other camp directors to run their daily operations. She said that of the 881 unique kids who’ve come this summer, which O’Donnell said is actually lower than it’s been in the past, 100 come from Cranston, around 200 from Providence, and the rest from the Kent County area.
The kids are bused in every morning from different locations around the state. Utschig said that many of the campers who come for the full 9 weeks are on subsidy or financial assistance, mostly from DHS.
The camp’s offerings are wide-ranging. There is the controlled pond, where kids can swim and canoe, then there’s the ball fields for physical activities, a splash center with a jungle-gym-like sprinkler setup, a large wooded area for exploring, and, of course, seating areas for lunch.
There’s also, notably, an indoor building where a variety of classrooms are set up, in which summer school lessons are taught to the kids, books are available for reading, and there is something called the ‘balance center,’ where Utschig said “kids can come to get back into the swing of things, take some time to cool down and relax, and staff can check in with the campers.”
O’Donnell said that the “goal is diversity,” and they have a wide variety of activities available so that kids get to experience certain things they may not to otherwise, like water sports or forest exploration.
Despite the offerings they already have, O’Donnell also said that the Y wants to continue raising more funds for their summer camp.
“We want all those kids who can’t afford it to be able to come here,” O’Donnell said. “The kids, you can see it in their eyes when they’re here how much they love it.”
He said that they “monitor legislation” to see what kind of funds they can apply for. He said the YMCA is different than daycares around the state because of the offerings of Camp OK-WA-NESSETT.
O’Donnell said that many of the materials they have at the camp, and the grounds themselves, were renovated by companies, who donate their services to the non-profit. But he said that the work isn’t done yet, and he’d like to see the grounds improved and expanded in ordered to bring more kids in.
To pay for new kids, especially those from low-income families, Casimiro said they will continue “trying to get the message out” and find support for those kids who need somewhere to go during the summer.
In addition to that challenge, Langevin also inquired about children in high school who may want to participate in a camp at the Y. Utschig said that DHS funding only allows kids up to age 14 to attend camp, and then they can’t come back to OK-WA-NESSETT until they apply to be camp counselors when they turn 18. O’Donnell suggested looking into a YMCA location in Smithfield they already to have to potentially set up a camp for kids in high school.
“We want to grow, to renovate our grounds, to raise funds, find grants, and bring new programs in,” O’Donnell said. “We really want to expand what we do.”