Operation Shoestring has been providing after-school and summer activities to Jackson’s kids for decades, but this year they’re doing things a little differently.
The new venture is called “Project Rise” and activities focused on physical and mental health are scattered throughout the summer. This includes integrating wellness conversations into field activities such as academic enrichment, science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) activities, outdoor sports, swimming lessons, and mentoring programs.
This year’s camp serves about 125 third to fifth graders for a period of six weeks, free of charge.
Its programs throughout the summer and school year support children in the Jackson Public School system and the metropolitan area. Students in Jackson are mainly from low-income black families: 95% of students are black and 73.8% of students eat free or reduced-price lunches.
For Laquinta Williams, the camp has been a great help to his family. Williams is a single mother of Walton Elementary School students Markeem and Akirahs who also attend Operation Shoestring summer programs.
He believes summer programming is especially important to his son Markeem, whose father recently passed away.
“He likes to talk to them, and he doesn’t usually like to talk to people,” he said of the camp staff. “He feels comfortable he is comfortable with them.”
She also said the camp helps her work.
“That’s a lot of money they raise children without any help,” she said. “… We appreciate everything. This is the best service we have had without a doubt. They also offer us breakfast when we leave our children.
Supporting children is hard to do alone, she said, and in recent summers she has paid for more summer camps and activities. The free activities at Operation Shoestring mean it won’t have that extra expense this year.
Robert Langford, executive director of Operation Shoestring, said the pressures the COVID-19 pandemic has put on communities of color, exacerbated by the immense stress caused by the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery in 2020 and the subsequent movement to social justice have created an urgent need within families across the country, especially in the Jackson community.
Recent research shows youth depressive and anxiety symptoms doubled during the pandemic, with 25% of youth experiencing depressive symptoms and 20% experiencing anxiety symptoms.
Suicide rates among black children were rising even before the pandemic, and now black children are nearly twice as likely to die from suicide as white children, according to the U.S. Surgeon-General’s Advisory. And children from low-income families are two to three times more likely to develop mental health disorders than those from higher-income families – a surprising statistic for a state like Mississippi, where about 30 percent of his children are poor.
To address the need for mental health support, Operation Shoestring weaves “positive and affirmative language” into its classrooms and activities, as well as a focus on physical health and well-being, Langford said.
The organization partnered with a dietician from the University of Mississippi Medical Center to illustrate the importance of nutrition in general well-being, such as conducting cooking and nutrition classes and creating healthful recipes.
Children at the camp will also take part in a pastry class at Urban Foxes, a local family-run cake shop.
Langford said Operation Shoestring values the ability to provide students with the ability to explore the outdoors, which they do through collaboration with St. Andrew’s Episcopal School and the Pearl River Keepers, an organization that works to protect the biodiversity of the Pearl River through cleaning and testing and monitoring of water.
At St. Andrew’s, students are encouraged to engage in a variety of activities, such as basketball, soccer, or wellness classes.
During a wellness class on Monday, Lauren Powell, director of wellness and high school consultant at the school, asked the children to reflect on what it means to practice wellness and be mindful, including laughter, physical activity, dancing and positive affirmations. The students then created a drawing that incorporated five to six positive characteristics about themselves, such as courageous, inquisitive, intelligent and kind.
Students enjoy doing Cupid’s shuffle and other dances to wake up and get ready before any other activity, he said, and the dances set the tone for campers to be more expressive.
Powell said she likes working with this age group because they are able to express their emotions without embarrassment.
When asked how to deal with children who may come from different backgrounds, Powell explained that St. Andrew’s uses something called “asset framing,” a way to allow children to first be defined by their resources and aspirations before their own. challenges or deficits.
“These kids come from very rich cultures and very, very rich family traditions,” he said.
Operation Shoestring also continues its tradition of offering support to parents of campers. It provided cash support to families in need during the height of the pandemic and now hosts two separate support group sessions for parents, one in the Cultivation Food Hall and the other in the Ecoshed.
“We are really trying to understand how we can build a world that is fair for everyone. And we have a special responsibility in Mississippi, because of our past, to do what we can with what we have where we are, “Langford said.” So we see ourselves as an organization, a place to provide direct services and mediate relationships with other people to build a healthier, fairer and more compassionate world. ”