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Outreaching to Diverse Communities: The Hispanic Community
It's a summer Monday morning — a school bus leaves one of the Union League Boys and Girls Clubs (ULBGC) carrying eighteen boys and twenty girls from the Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago. Behind, a handful of parents wave goodbye to their most precious possessions, their children. Some parents and children alike show the same signs of uncertainty — fear and sometimes even tears. These children are on their way to two weeks of summer camp, but for many parents in this heavily Hispanic neighborhood that is a frightful thought.
Across the city, the same ritual takes place at the other three Boys and Girls Clubs operated by the Union League Boys and Girls Clubs organization, which operates four boys and girls clubs and a camp. Indeed, every other Monday — from mid-June through mid-August — four bus loads of children leave the city to experience summer camp. During the summer of 2003, almost half of them went to camp for the very first time.
Sixty-five miles north of Chicago, just across the border between Illinois and Wisconsin in Salem, Wisconsin, about fifty summer camp staff await the arrival of the campers. At around 10:30 a.m., one hundred and thirty-six campers arrive. Their laughs, screams, quarrels, excitement, and uncertainty, pretty much define what the following two weeks will be like. As they run, play, laugh, and enjoy themselves, socio-political circumstances unravel around their own existence in a country that many of them call their own and that for many others is a strange land where their parents brought them to find opportunities for a better life. However, at this time in their short lives all they want is just to have a little fun.
Union League Boys and Girls Clubs were founded in 1919 — the first boys and girls club opened its doors in 1920, and the camp was purchased and began operations in 1924. Since the 1920s, Chicago neighborhoods have changed drastically in their ethnic, economic, and socio-political composition. All four boys and girls clubs are now operating in neighborhoods with heavy concentrations of Latino/Hispanic ethnic groups — followed by African Americans and a handful of Eastern Europeans.
The Union League Boys and Girls Clubs Camp serves 136 campers every two weeks, from six through thirteen years of age. Seventy-two are girls and sixty-four are boys. Last year close to 65 percent were of Hispanic background, about 30 percent African American, and close to 5 percent White. These numbers reflect pretty much today's boys and girls clubs membership. However, it wasn't always like this. In 1994, numbers were very different — approximately 60 percent of the campers were African Americans, 25 percent Hispanics, and about 15 percent White. Ten years ago, most of the campers were coming from all over the city and suburbs and only a handful from the neighborhoods where the boys and girls clubs operated.
The Union League Boys and Girls Clubs' philosophy states clearly that camp is an extension of the clubs and that camp services and programs must closely reflect the philosophies, approaches, and services of the boys and girls clubs. In 1994, when an assessment of services was conducted, it became obvious that by serving almost 70 percent of children from areas outside of the clubs' service areas, the boys and girls clubs camp was not accomplishing its mission as stated in the organizational philosophy.
Changes had to be made, but how? After all, the ethnic composition of the areas served by the clubs is heavily Hispanic, and summer camp is not part of the Hispanic culture. Many Hispanic parents to this date are still adamantly opposed to sending their children away for two weeks, and even a greater number of Hispanic kids really don't want to change the comfort zone of their homes for the uncertainty of two weeks away from their families.
Adjusting to change is difficult. The strategy implemented to make sure that the camp became an extension of the boys and girls clubs was without doubt a challenging and painful one. And, at the same time a success story. Hispanic parents in the neighborhoods were not going to change their minds just because the boys and girls clubs decided to change their outreach strategies and serve more kids from the neighborhoods.
The first step was to make it economically appealing.
The second step was to makethe program trustworthy.
Since 1994, many counselors, unit leaders, and program directors have been recruited from the same neighborhoods as the ones in which our campers live. Many members of the staff are transfers from the local boys and girls clubs — giving the parents the assurance that their children are with people they know and trust. Many others are former campers who come back as junior staff, counselors, and even administrative team members.
Additionally, in order to establish the key element of trust, we made camp more parent friendly — not just to satisfy parents as customers in a business setting, but rather to make them feel part of the camp and to assure them that they are in control when it comes to the lives of their children. At the Union League Boys and Girls Clubs Camp, parents are welcomed to visit their children any day and at any time. If parents can't come to the camp, they can talk to their children on the phone during mealtimes — and in extreme cases — the camp will provide transportation for parents who wish to come to visit their children and don't have the means to do it. This approach has definitely helped the camp develop an environment of parent-trust for the camp.
The third step is to make the camp program worthwhile.
This proved to be true in all the neighborhoods where our boys and girls clubs operated. Many people in our communities who send their children to camp have done so because of their own economic situation — sacrificing their own customs because camp is a cheap, yet safe and fun way to save on child care. The parents discover, however, that the rewards are incredible.
Through the years, these campers who started to go to camp as a necessity developed into wholesome youth whose parents were willing to pay higher fees so their children could continue benefiting from the camp experience. The most important part of our approach was the word-of-mouth effect since Hispanic communities share much of the consumer information from person to person.
The fourth step — making it fun — is intrinsically tied to the third step.
Parents continue to send their children to camp because their children are not only having fun, but also because they are growing and developing in a safe, nurturing, and healthy environment.
How do parents know this? Parents have the opportunity to visit their children at camp and see for themselves the healthy relationships that develop between their kids and the camp staff. They are able to build partnerships with the camp director and other staff from the boys and girls clubs. And, perhaps, most important, when their children come home from camp, their parents see the positive effects that the camp experience had on them.
Clear Vision and Commitment
Our outreach strategy works well. It is an ongoing process because our neighborhoods are constantly changing — and as some families move out of the neighborhoods, new ones arrive — and the process starts all over again. It is not an easy task, but it is working. The most important point is that in order to make the camp economically appealing — or free — and to make it trustworthy, worthwhile, and fun, we needed a clear vision and commitment from the camp committee and the board of trustees down to the executive director, club directors, and other people involved with the camp — if we wish to impact the lives of the children in our communities.
The Big Picture and the Bottom Line
In 1986, when I first came to work at the Union League Boys and Girls Clubs as a program director at Club One in the Pilsen neighborhood, my first boss and mentor, Frank Matkovich, started my induction as a youth professional and manager with five short words — look at the big picture. Ever since then, I have been looking at the big picture. In 1999, when Mary Ann Mahon Huels took over the direction of our organization as executive director, she made it clear that we also had to look at the bottom line. As we look at the different possibilities and acquire a better understanding of the dynamics of Hispanic communities, we can assess and improve our outreach strategies and develop new approaches to better serve their children — using both concepts.
The bottom line is that there are currently more than 12,000,000 Hispanic children in the U.S. whose parents need to be educated about the benefits of the camp experience. Unfortunately the biggest misconception by most camps is that Hispanics can't afford the cost of sending their children to camp. According to a Census Bureau study, 12.4 percent of Hispanics earned $50,000.00 or more — while 26.3 percent earned $35,000.00 or more. A study released by the U.S. Department of Commerce, in October 2001, reported the number of Hispanic-owned firms was growing rapidly. Hispanic-owned businesses in the United States totaled 1.2 million firms, employed over 1 million people, and generated nearly $200 billion in revenues. Most of these people have children!
Because Hispanics are a heterogeneous group, there are unlimited possibilities for camps — since they too are so varied — to include and serve this growing population. Currently, within the camp industry/movement, there are many different kinds of camps — including private camps, religious camps, agency camps, private nonprofit camps, sports camps, specialized camps, etc. At the same time, the Hispanic upper middle class and middle class are growing at a rapid pace to the point that most U.S. corporations are targeting the Hispanic market. By the year 2050, the power of the Hispanic market will reach $1 trillion. This can only mean that there are opportunities for many different camps to impact this growing segment of our population. It is to the detriment of the camp community to overlook this diverse population — or to categorize them.
The American Camping Association Illinois Section is making a tremendous effort to outreach different communities — especially the Hispanic community. For the last five years, the section has conducted camp fairs in five Chicago Public Schools with heavy concentrations of Hispanic and African American students. It has developed a Web site, which includes information for college students searching for employment opportunities and for parents looking for camps to send their children. This section has a long history of developing partnerships and programs that pay for disadvantaged children to attend camp — children from families that otherwise couldn't afford the camp experience.
Camp can enrich lives and change the world — for everyone. As camp professionals, we must develop a vision and commitment to reach out to diverse communities and to provide children of different ethnic, social, and economic backgrounds the opportunity to live the camp experience.
David Lira Leveron has been a youth professional for seventeen years and a camp director for the last twelve. He serves on the board of directors and co-chairs the Public Awareness Committee for the American Camping Association Illinois Section. For more information on the Union League Boys and Girls Clubs programs, contact Leveron at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the 2004 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.