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School may be out, but the classrooms at Missoula County Public Schools' Jefferson Center were busy Friday morning.

Sixty students — rising first- through fifth-graders — were building towers, assembling model airplanes and turning cartwheels under the watch of camp counselors. All were participants in the Missoula Family YMCA’s Camp Imagination.

This is one of several summer and after-school offerings that the Y offers to young Missoulians. Amber Hitchcock, the organization’s director of school-age programming, explained that Camp Imagination aims to prevent summer learning loss.

“A lot of the times that kids aren't here and engaged in activities, they're going to be attached to screens and not engaging with other kids, other people, the world around them. A lot of kids won't necessarily crack open a book during the summer months.”

Camp Imagination, she continued, aims to sustain those skills while helping campers have fun. “We go to the lake once a week, but we also do a math problem at the beginning of the day. We'll do the fun lanyards, just normal craft projects, but we're also reading books and doing activities to go along with those books, so it's really just keeping skills sharp.”

The YMCA's summer programs recently got some major boosts. One was a $60,000, three-year grant from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation. That’s helping the organization reach more campers, said Eli Catton, the Missoula Family YMCA’s director of youth development.

“By partnering with local elementary schools, we have distributed 97 vouchers for camp into the Missoula Community.” he explained in an email,  “… and have brought many new faces to the Y who were not previously involved in YMCA programming. Already we have seen 69 of these vouchers come back to us for registration, 30 of which have attended camp in the first three weeks of summer!”

Those vouchers apply to the Y's other summer programs, not Camp Imagination. But thanks to two other grants, Camp Imagination participants have more to do when they come. Funding from Missoula’s ALPS Corporation, the YMCA’s title sponsor for all summer camps, increased Camp Imagination’s book library. The Sample Foundation, meanwhile, provided $3,600 for the purchase of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) kits.

Already, Hitchcock said, they’ve been put to good use. “The second-graders were doing electricity projects … . The fifth-graders were doing magnets, and so they're able to explore things and use these really awesome kits that we wouldn't have without that grant.”

On Friday, rising fourth- and fifth-graders were using the kits’ KEVA building blocks to try their hands at architecture. A maze took up one patch of the classroom’s floor. A Jenga-like tower, with an opening and track to guide a small rolling ball, was rising in other.

Projects like this are just part of the appeal for camp counselor Tyler Chehak, known as “Tiger” to the campers. “We do great field trips, we have guest speakers come, we do projects like this with STEM.”

A University of Montana graduate who now teaches eighth-grade social studies in California, Chehak has come back to Missoula for a second summer at the camp.

“They just love being here,” she said of the campers.

Summer Denning and Addison Frick, rising fourth-graders at Cold Springs Elementary School and Chief Charlo Elementary, respectively, both enjoy Camp Imagination’s offerings — especially the swimming.

“It’s a really fun experience,” Denning said. “There’s lots of projects.”


This article originally failed to mention that the vouchers funded by the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation Grant cannot be used for Camp Imagination. It also misstated Eli Catton's title as Director of Youth Improvement. He is the Director of Youth Development.

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