New London summer camp lets students connect with, explore community
New London — With seventh grade fast approaching, 11-year-old Stephanie Flores already is talking about next summer. But not because she wants to avoid academics or her teachers at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School — quite the opposite.
"Oh God, she's already like, 'Can I go next year?'" said Stephanie's mom, Margarita Aguilar, describing the middle school's popular Camp Rotary/Summer Summit camp program, which wrapped up Friday with lunch and swimming at Ocean Beach Park.
The seven-week summer camp saw almost 175 students take advantage of reading programs and in-depth research every morning before kayaking, sailing, bowling, ice skating, fishing and exploring the region's culture and history in the afternoons.
"She never did half of those things before this," Aguilar said. "They could be home watching TV or playing on phones or tablets. Instead, they were engaged."
Program co-director and longtime area football coach Ed Sweeney noted the Rotary Club of New London's summer camp had been around for about 25 years. Eight years ago, a small group of organizers and Bennie Dover teachers got involved to expand the program, and it's grown ever since, especially the last three years.
"We started with three teachers and 39 students," Sweeney said Friday. "This summer we're up to 10 teachers and we averaged 147 students a day for 34 days."
While Sweeney was happy kids were engaging in adventures — students took a trip to Block Island this week and went on camping, canoeing and fishing trips out of state — he emphasized that the rigorous lessons, workshops and reading programs are vital to the camp's popularity.
"We're trying to prevent our kids from going backwards during the summer slide," he said. "We ask our kids to commit in the morning."
Ninth-graders who've gone through the program receive community service credit for serving as "captains" leading the middle schoolers during camp activities.
"We get 20 to 25 applications just to be captains and we only select 10," Sweeney said. "Kids don't want to leave, they want to keep coming back."
Co-director Erin Arzamarski, who teaches social studies at Bennie Dover, said students "learned about the community they live in," visiting Bates Woods and checking out murals throughout the city and learning their history.
"I think we have really honed in on the rich resources that New London County has to offer," Arzamarski said.
Students also studied the environment and conducted beach and city cleanups. They researched ways to raise awareness and combat domestic violence, human trafficking, substance abuse, harassment and sexual assault.
"The rigor of what we offered in the morning was more challenging but more engaging and relevant, and made them want to come back," Arzamarski said. "Then we just went out and played."
Sweeney and Arzamarski thanked a host of partners for helping the students explore and connect with the community. The program largely is funded through a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The program also receives funding or in-kind services from the New London Rotary, the Veolia Foundation, Connecticut College, Ocean Beach, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and its cyber program, New England Science and Sailing, and the Appalachian Mountain Club. Arzamarski also credited Sweeney and Bennie Dover Principal Alison Burdick for their grant-writing and partnership-building skills.
Arzamarski said the relationship-building between classmates, and between students and teachers, was invaluable and leads to better experiences during the school year.
"Sometimes you get into a frustrating moment with a kid when you're not sure who's going to lose it first, them or you," she said. "But then you can say, 'Remember when we were in that pool in the middle of July?' Those little experiences in the summer make things easier. They see you as a real, live person and, when they walk in in September, full of nerves and anxiety, it's like, 'We got this.'"
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