Summer is the most violent time of year in urban areas. Some cite hotter temperatures, while others point the finger at out-of-school teenagers. No one factor is to blame, but it makes sense to provide opportunities for young people while keeping them off the streets. Summer service programs can help.
Daniela Martinez, a junior at Life Academy in Oakland, Calif., spent her second summer in a row in rural areas gaining environmental awareness. In 2009, she traveled with Environmental Travel Companions (ETC) whose mission is to open “the beauty and challenge of outdoor adventures to people with special needs.” ETC taught Martinez a thing or two about inclusion. “Everybody has a disability … everybody had something,” Daniela said. “So, it wasn’t just the kid who couldn’t see. It was everybody.”
After a summer with ETC, she applied to Summer Search, which offers low-income students mentoring and college preparation. But it is perhaps best known for sending participants on two major trips during high school. As a first-year Summer Search participant, Martinez went on a month long Outward Bound course in North Carolina. This included free backpacking and rafting the Chattooga River, an excursion that can cost well over $3,500.
These trips can be a lot of fun. And for students of color from impoverished school systems, summer programs are often a catalyst for change. “Before the program [ETC],” Martinez says, “I was a very shy person, like speaking in front of a big audience … I still had this, like, I don’t know, butterflies in my stomach.” After ETC, she said, “I could now talk to total strangers about environmental awareness…. I feel like I’ve gained my confidence in speaking in front of an audience.”
For Juan Luna, a sophomore at Life Academy, getting out of the city was essential. He went on a one-month trip to Costa Rica with Education Without Borders, International (Ed’Intl.). “It’s safe, and, for me, that is something great,” he says. “Over there I wore any color, from black to a blue button-up that I own. I am scared to wear them where I’m from.” Luna lives in an Oakland neighborhood where a flash of blue could mean affiliation with a rival gang and cost him his life. Not only could he wear blue during his summer away from Oakland, but he could wear a smile too. “Over there I smiled a lot,” he said, “something I really didn’t do here in the U.S. [The trip] was a mental massage.”
The main focus of the trip with Ed’Intl. was community among the American and Costa Rican students and the villages that hosted them. But students also learned about human rights as well as environmental justice and sustainability. The group, working with local Costa Ricans, learned how to make eco bricks. They are cheaper than ordinary bricks. But they are also better for the environment because they are made out of reclaimed materials normally found in a landfill. Similarly, the students learned to make bio-char stoves. They could immediately see the impact these had on households in the community.
Dania Cabello, the outreach and development coordinator for Ed, Int’l, points out that the programs reach students in ways that schools often cannot. For instance, one girl, for the first time, began hanging around with fellow students who read for fun. “She sees a bunch of peers that she really likes, that she gets along with, admires, respects, [who are] reading,” Cabello says. “So she had her head in a book the entire month. For the first time, read a book cover to cover—something that the first 18 years of her life couldn’t do for her.”
More importantly, summer programs like these give young people “something to look forward to,” says Cabello. “Their life can continue to be this way if they invest in it. Our kids often don’t invest in their education because they don’t see it as being relevant. But when you get out there… you start making connections.”
Those connections do translate to more confidence and better grades. They also translate into a vision for the future that doesn’t include gangs, drugs and the street. Summer programs help us raise the whole person, hopefully making them excited to come back to school—not because it’s the safest place to be, but because it feeds their curiosity.
Thomas is an English teacher in California.