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Camp Fire provides warm, safe places for children

Camp Fire West Michigan 4C provides after-school and summer programming for 1,300 students in Grand Rapids. Its program would go away if federal funding is cut.
Camp Fire CEO Gayle Orange says her agency’s after-school and summer programs make a big difference in the lives of young people

Camp Fire CEO Gayle Orange says her agency’s after-school and summer programs make a big difference in the lives of young people

If you think you know all the things that after-school and summer programs do for children, let Gayle Orange fill you in on just a few: A strings program for students at Congress Elementary, provided by St. Cecilia Music Society, including a concert there; physical activities and nutrition lessons provided by nursing students at Grand Valley State University; visits to Lake Michigan and Shedd Aquarium in Chicago; tutoring for students at Chavez Elementary by volunteers from United Church Outreach Ministry; Boy and Girl Scout troops in schools.

And, in case you didn't know, after-school and summer activities for 1,300 children in 11 Grand Rapids Public Schools are provided by Camp Fire West Michigan 4C, where Orange is CEO. But all this and more would be lost if the federal government shuts down the 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant program, she said.

"There are so many things you don't think about when after-school goes away," said Orange, in her 23rd year with the organization once known as Camp Fire Girls. "There are so many things that are lost for children and families."

Camp Fire is one of three agencies that contract with GRPS to provide after-school and summer programming. The YMCA and United Methodist Community House also run programs that serve a total of 3,000 students.

Camp Fire's involvement goes back to 1994, when it began an after-school and summer program at Oakdale Elementary School. When 21st Century grant funding came along, the agency joined with other community groups to apply for those dollars for GRPS students, said Orange, a former president of the Grand Rapids Board of Education and PTA activist.

Low turnover among site coordinators and activity leaders allows them to build strong relationships with children as well as their parents, Orange said. They help young people set goals and discover gifts, while sharing with parents their progress and problems. About 70 percent of families served earn less than $25,000.

Camp Fire will continue to run programs this summer even though federal funding is in question, and despite a loss of $140,000 in United Way support. If that federal funding is shut down, so would Camp Fire's program employing 66 staff, Orange said. She noted it would also have a "domino effect" on other agency programs, such as training of youth workers and early childhood providers.

"I know the difference we make every day," Orange said. "We have children tell us, 'I don't know where I'd be if it weren't for Camp Fire.'"

By Charles Honey, School News Network

Related coverage: 'Communities are going to see repercussions' from Trump after-school cuts, leaders say

Photo by Charles Honey.

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