They crept through the African jungle with invisible bows and arrows, little feet stepping to the rhythm of the drums. In this land of make believe, anything is possible and imaginations run wild.
Missoula area students between the ages of 9 and 13 celebrated the African spirit on Tuesday at the Summer Arts and Leadership Camp, designed for students whose families face the reality of homelessness.
While the program prefers the term “families in transition,” one thing is certain: The number of children who qualify for the camp has grown from 48 enrollees in 2006 to just below 70 the past three years.
More are waiting to get in.
“I’ve been with the program for seven years and I’ve seen nothing but increases in the need for this,” said program coordinator Joshua Lisbon. “Due to cutbacks at the district level and other foundations we work with, we’re in jeopardy of not having the camp next year.”
The McKinney-Vento Act defines a family in transition as one that doubles up with friends or others to make ends meet, including situations where the parents and children may be staying in different places.
Some may stay in parks, campgrounds, motels or shelters due to a lack of permanent housing. Others may reside in safe houses as a result of domestic violence at home. Some may be placed in foster care due to lack of shelter space.
Despite the program’s values and growing need, Claire Fawcett, program director for Family Basics, said funding cuts could end the summer camp for good.
The program receives roughly $40,000 annually from Missoula County Public Schools. But like many entities, Fawcett said, the district is looking at ways to reduce its budget.
“Unfortunately, it’s one of the programs that’s on the chopping block for next year,” said Fawcett. “I’m working closely with the folks at the school district to look at other sources of funding from their budget. But as it stands right now, the allocation that will be given to us in the fall will be at such a reduction that camp won’t be possible.”
Fawcett said Family Basics may look to the community for help, along with private donors and other funding mechanisms. This past year, the camp accepted 65 students while 12 were on the waiting list to get in.
The funding concerns are kept from the students who, on Tuesday, spent their day crafting plaster masks and dancing to the beat of the dundun and djembe drums, courtesy of Unity Dance and Drum.
Led by Tarn Ream and Roger Moquin, the afternoon session included a crash course on African culture and people, followed by a round of giggle-filled celebration dances, including the yankidi and coucou.
“My organization was founded to bring the music and culture of Africa to Missoula and the surrounding communities,” said Ream. “Education is a big part of that. We’ve been doing the Summer Arts and Education Camp for years, and diversity and cultural education as well.”
Nine-year-old Royce McClure and his buddies, Brandon Finley and Drew Anderson, who’s better known in camp circles as “Mr. Pickles,” didn’t hesitate in joining the dance circle.
Aside from dancing and mask making, their summer camp itinerary includes a Mountain Line scavenger hunt, whitewater rafting and horseback riding – a first for many of the students.
“I liked hiking up to the pond yesterday at Bass Creek,” said Anderson. “I fell in a mud hole. I like playing dodge ball and all the new games we’ve learned.”
Lisbon said the camp’s activities aren’t designed as classroom academics. He calls it back-door education, saying camp is for summer and summer should be fun.
Camp leaders, many of them college education and counseling students, keep close tabs on the kids, helping them develop conflict resolution skills while talking casually about their lives at home.
“We provide them with a better tool kit for conflict resolution and stress relief than what they came in with,” Lisbon said. “We sit down with them and try to help them communicate more effectively so they feel respected and heard and everyone feels this is a safe place to be. While they’re here, they’re well fed and provided for.”
To find out more about the camp, log on to www.salcmt.org.