Rising Up for School Days

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Bringing the lessons from Camp Rise Up into the classroom and beyond

Javan sits on a rock outside his cabin on the last afternoon of Camp Rise Up, glinting in the sun, a pair of cool white-framed sunglasses perched atop his head. There’s a slightly nervous look on his sweet 13-year-old face and his lips move as he silently repeats the questions being asked of him: What’s his name? What appealed to him about coming to camp? Did he learn anything new here? He raises his right hand, lays it upon his chest and clears his throat. “Ahem!” he says, as if preparing for an auspicious speech. Which, for this first-time camper, it was. “They help you learn about what’s going on in life,” he says. “At first, I was nervous to come here, to be honest. But now, it’s more comfortable. I made a lot of friends! And I learned a lot—through other people’s experiences and also they teach us stuff that school normally wouldn’t do.”

And he learned to swim, too, thanks to his new friends. That, Javan says, was pretty cool.

Javan was one of 59 students in the 2021 edition of Camp Rise Up, a free, week-long camp held annually on the 250-acre campus of Camp Ramapo in the Hudson Valley for children ages 12 to 15 who live in homeless shelters, domestic violence safe houses and other temporary housing. It was the largest group to attend the camp since its inception in 2018, when Dr. Meghan Miller, the Floating Hospital’s director of health education, started it as a one-off event for kids served by TFH. But this year, the need for friendship, fresh air and important life lessons was palpable among the attendees—kids still reeling from the impact of Covid 19. With testing, masks and social distancing in place, the camp returned to its sleep-away format this year after pivoting to a day camp last year.

“In the past, the most we had was 27 campers. Ideally, we’ll have 100 moving forward, that’s our goal and our trajectory,” Miller says.

The learning aspect has evolved as the camp has grown. This year, Miller broke the lessons down into a trio of tiered programs titled Rise, Trek and Climb, each tailored to the camper’s level of experience with the camp. Programming included social-emotional learning, practical skills and a new counselor-in-training track. While the lessons are key to the education and bonding of the kids, the teaching and counselor staff all learn, too, becoming more proficient listeners to a population who are often unseen and unheard.

graphic with nilsa and quote

Habiba Alcindor, a Floating Hospital program coordinator and first-time camp counselor said she got to know the kids better through interviews and short smartphone videos.

“You just can’t judge these kids by what they say or how they say it initially; it might not reflect how they feel,” she said. “One of these kids was a little tough at first—very cocky—but when I talked to him, he said the thing he liked about camp is that people cared so much about the kids. It was so revealing.”

Miller also experienced a number of reveals. “I think we learned a few things. In particular, we all saw how hard Covid was for a lot of these kids,” she said . “A lot were struggling with depression, anxiety about going back to school, worry about going to camp and making friends. But, they were needing that social outlet that they’d been missing for the last year and half.”

“It was exciting for them to meet new people and spend time with people outside their houses—especially when some of them are sharing a single hotel room with their mother. It’s scary for them to start returning and doing things with other people and they were happy to have that opportunity to get out.”

Miller says in the past year she and her team saw a marked increase in mental-health issues among the youth TFH serves. “Just in general, this is a population already under stress. One kid said he lives in a shelter, has no friends and is just really lonely.” So, this year for the first time, a behavioral-health provider was available to the campers. “She came with us and was available to talk to the kids when they needed it, and that was cool,” says Miller.

According to a Covid-related study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last year there was a 24% rise in emergency mental-health visits for children ages 5-11. Add to that the 2020 national poll by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Michigan, which found nearly 50% of parents reporting signs of worrisome mental-health issues in their teenagers, both new and worsened existing ones. Fear, confusion, isolation and just the general disruption of normal home and school life affected innumerable children the world over, but for the population of kids already living in the unsure space that is homelessness, the anxiety was incalculable. This year, Camp Rise Up was even more of a lifeline than ever.

“Because of Covid, we can’t hug. But with fist bumps and elbow to elbow, they know the love is there,” says Nilsa Mena, a third-year camp counselor and the clinic’s childcare attendant for the last 15 years. Over her years, she’s observed that while the kids are absorbing important lessons on sex and health education, peer pressure, conflict resolution and self-esteem to name a few, they’re also teaching important human lessons to each other and to the people caring for them.

“If you respect them, they respect you. If you listen to them, they listen to you. You have to give what they want to get it in return,” Mena says. “These kids came in so hard and on guard. By the second day, they’re so delicate. It’s a very cool experience. And I’m so happy they see things other than what they’re used to.”

— Amy Zavatto

Camp Rise Up Class of 2022 photo album

Since 1866, The Floating Hospital has been the largest provider of healthcare and education to families living with homelessness. Based in Long Island City, it provides comprehensive primary, dental and behavioral-health services, and health-education to patients living in more than 300 shelters and domestic violence safe houses throughout New York City.

In 2021, The Floating Hospital moved into a new modern main clinic in Long Island City, and continue to support patients in satellite clinics at family homeless shelters and public housing complexes in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

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