By Steven Hoffman
This is how it starts. A few children find out that a summer program is available to them in their own neighborhood, a program where they can enjoy recreation and educational activities. After the first day, those children tell their friends and neighbors and the number of participants grows. By the end of the week, the children are already looking forward to the next time the program will be in the community. Last week, the Penn State Extension 4-H program debuted at a new site, the Oxford Village mobile home park in Penn Township, where youngsters between the ages of 6 and 18 discussed the environment and learned about animals and their habitats.
“This is a new site and this is a good start,” said Laurie Szoke, the Penn State Extension Educator. “I think it’s great that the program is growing. We want to bring these education programs to communities where children might not be able to get out.”
There are between 15 and 20 program sites throughout the county this summer. These program sites include mobile home parks, apartment complexes, and small, underserved communities where children live.
“We have sites from Jennersville to Coatesville,” Szoke said. “And each site is very different from each other.”
Karen D’Agusto is a volunteer with the Girl Scouts and a member of the 4-H development committee. She said that she has seen how the program benefits the youngsters.
“I like that the kids are given an activity,” D’Agusto said. “They are involved in science, sports, and crafts. It’s like a summer camp coming to them.”
While there is an educational component to the summer programs, the lessons are always fun and interesting for the youngsters.
Szoke said that the summer program traces its roots back to 1985, when the federal government was offering funding for programs that helped at-risk youth. The summer programs started to take their current form in 1991, but each year the program is modified to suit the changing needs of youngsters.
The program brings together educators and volunteers from numerous organizations, ranging from the Girl Scouts to the Chester County Health Department to the Chester County 4-H program.
Joyce-Martin praised the Oxford Village officials for going out of their way to help establish a new program site. Anything that can be done to enhance the experience for the children is welcome.
“It’s exciting to see the communities get involved in the program,” Szoke said.
Luz Garzon works for the Chester County Health Department and was at the Oxford Village site to talk to the children about the importance of good dental hygiene. She made a tic-tac-toe game up and asked questions of the children. Most of the questions are easy and share tips about good dental health, such as the importance of brushing between meals and what kind of bristles a tooth brush should have. At the end of the game, she gives the children a tooth brush, tooth paste, and a coloring book. All the items have been donated specifically for the Creating Community Networks program.
Garzon, who also goes into schools to talk to youngsters about good dental practices, said that she has delivered lessons about the importance of good dental hygiene for the summer program for the last four or five years. She likes to reach out to as many children as possible each year.
“I promise to go to every one of the sites at least once,” Garzon said.
The collaboration with the Chester County Health Department and other organizations is important to the Creating Community Networks program because the funding for the summer program is pieced together from various grants and corporate and private donations.
That collaboration extends to various year-round programs that Creating Community Networks organizes. While there are various programs, they are all targeted toward families with need.
Szoke credited the site leaders and volunteers with making the summer program a success year after year.
“We have a dynamic staff and there is a lot of collaboration,” she said. “We’ve gotten so much support from the management. Everybody has something to give to the program.”