Summer camp provides many firsts for children of Orange Avenue Apartments



A group of children get instructions from a volunteer before engaging in a game of dodge ball at the Orange Avenue Apartments summer camp.
Photos by St. Clair Murraine

By St. Clair Murraine

Outlook staff writer

    Lee Johnson is trying to change the culture in a Southside neighborhood where children historically have spent their summers with not much to do.

First, he established Loved By Jesus Family Church, where he is pastor, in the Orange Avenue Apartment community that’s home for low-income families. Now, this summer he is running a camp where he and a small staff teach the children.

It’s a sort of leaning experienced for Johnson, too. Especially when the children go on field trips.

The free camp is an opportunity for the 43 children to experience what not many with their economic background could afford. A nation-wide study has found that affluent children are five times more likely to attend a summer camp than those who are at an economic disadvantage.

The report was published by the National Center for Education Statistics. It also found that 7 percent of children living at or below the federal poverty line have access to summer camps compared to 38 percent of children who come from families that are better off.

Providing the summertime experience for the children, who live in the Tallahassee Housing Authority-subsidized apartments, is his response to recent gun violence in the city, said Johnson, who also runs an after-school program in the neighborhood.

“I might not be able to do anything about what’s going on right now with the 16-17 year olds that we have lost, but I can do something about these,” Johnson said. “I realized that we have another generation coming up behind this one and somebody needs to focus on this generation.”

The camp has been going on since June 17 and it ends July 26. The kids have learned a lot from the instructors, who in turn are making discoveries of their own.

For example, Johnson said he’s realized that not many of the children have experienced life outside of their community.

However, when summer is done the children would remember trips to Destin, Atlanta and FAMU’s agriculture farm in Gadsden County. Every trip has been a new experience for the children.

Their trip to Atlanta where they visited Morehouse and Clark universities was a big teaching moment. Johnson discovered on the trip that many of the children ages 6 to 17 heard about attending college for the first time.

“If you expose a kid so they could see that life and want that life,” Johnson said. “I’ve found out that if you expose the kids to see more than what’s around here they will want it bad enough.”

Surprisingly, Johnson said, most of the children had never seen the ocean until they went to Destin. For some it was their first trip outside of Leon County.

“That thing shocked me,” Johnson said. “Man, it’s sad. Stuff we take for granted; I mean, we’ve got kids who say, ‘pastor I’ve never seen the ocean before.’ ”

Nine-year-old Giovanni Banks, who lives just behind the Oliver Hill Center, where the camp is located, said she found the trip to the farm especially interesting. In addition to a lecture, she and the other children spent time learning about chickens, goats and other animals.

“At first I thought that animals just wanted to eat and be messy,” Banks said. “But I found out that animals like to be themselves.”

Johnson’s staff includes a FAMU student, two other volunteers and Shenelle Baskin, a Housing Authority employee. The camp is one of many she’s worked with in 12 years.

She takes the children through many games and other activities each day, but establishing a relationship with the children was one of her biggest challenges during the first couple of weeks, Baskin said. 

“I have to let them know that I’m here to help you; not hurt you,” said Baskin, who started working with the Housing Authority in 2014. “I let them know my purpose for being around. Once I get that message out, everything goes smoothly.

“As long as you keep them busy, they are not a problem.”

Theotis Young, a rising senior at Rickards High School, is one of the oldest participants. Sometimes Young, 17, doubles as an assistant.

He often finds himself learning as much as the young children whose mindset could be challenging, he said.

“We take these kids and we turned them into respectful kids,” Young said. “It’s teaching me a lesson about how to carry myself in public because sometimes we can get out of hand and can’t control ourselves.”