Learning through play
During a rainy summer afternoon at a program for foster children, two young campers were on the brink of having a fight.
The elementary school-aged children were engaged in an argument involving what type of game they should play next during a summer camp hosted by Play Grow Learn on Wednesday, Aug. 21. It was right after lunch, so both were plenty energized and passionate about their respective choice. As a bigger argument loomed, Jacinda Green, a recent Reynolds High School graduate who is spending her summer as a counselor with Play Grow Learn, stepped in.
She suggested the two compromise and take turns, doing both activities. After a bit of negotiations, the crisis was averted.
"Being a counselor lets you connect with the kids and learn the stories behind each of them," Green said. "When coming up with activities we find out what the kids want to do each day, and then build everything around them."
Counselors like Green are the driving force behind the nonprofit Play Grow Learn's programs, which are dedicated to supporting children ages 5-16 across the Rockwood neighborhood.
The organization, which operates under the umbrella of Beyond Black CDC, runs the Friends of the Children gym at 424 N.E. 172nd Ave. They host open gym nights, multiple week-long summer camps for homeless and foster children, and various other events throughout the year. The group uses sports as a platform, but focuses on teaching life skills and citizenship.
The counselors, who are local high school and college students, all grew up in East Multnomah County, so they understand many of the challenges the campers face. They serve as youth leaders to run drills and hang out with the kids, lending an ear as needed.
"(The counselors) give our kids a sense of hope and shows what they can achieve," said Anthony Bradley, founder and executive director of Play Grow Learn. "Our staff reflects the neighborhood, we cover all the cultures we serve."
Anayah Davis has been with the program since July 8. Her dad is friends with the organizers, which is how she first learned about the opportunity.
"I love kids — coming here and seeing them," said Davis, who lives near the gym. "We are able to find out what problems the kids have and how to deal with them."
The relationship between the kids and counselors is similar to an older sibling. Nineteen counselors, ranging in age from 16 to 24, rotate through the programs, which have been developed and offered the last four years.
"You see when a kid is dealing with a problem," Davis said. "We understand and can put ourselves in their shoes."
The best technique she has discovered is to take the campers on a walk if they are struggling with something particularly difficult. It gives them a chance to unwind and open up about whatever is troubling them.
"You can't say 'no' or tell them they can't do something," Davis said. "We support them."
Portland State University sophomore Tre Campbell grew up playing in the gym where he now volunteers his time.
At the time, the gym was known as a Police Activities League facility, and despite the change in name and operations, he still remembers all the time he spent playing basketball and other games with his friends.
"I've been coming here since the sixth grade. It's a little weird being back," Campbell said. "But it's worth it to help make a better future for these kids."
Getting involved was an easy decision for Campbell. He is attending PSU to pursue a degree in applied health and fitness, so he likes working with the campers. They often ask him for football and basketball tips — how to overcome problems or improve their technique.
"Without this space, they are in the streets doing something bad," he said.
Alternatives for kids who go to the camps and gym nights can be grim. Many don't live within walking distance of a park or playground, so they have to make do with whatever they can.
"We see kids bouncing basketballs against garage doors or getting into things they shouldn't because they have nothing available," Bradley said.
For Zakiya Scott, helping at Play Grow Learn is a chance to gain experience in the field she wants to pursue after high school. The soon-to-be Parkrose senior is looking to major in psychology in college, so working with children is a great opportunity.
"I want to help youth of color because there is a lot of stress in our community," Scott said. "I am helping the kids work through their problems. The number one thing is making sure they have fun."
One of the things Scott keeps her eye on is campers who wander off on their own. She goes to make sure things are OK, and tries to prompt them to join in the activities with the others. Through her time as a counselor, she has learned better techniques for communicating with kids.
During Wednesday's camp she sat with a group who wanted to make rubber band bracelets. While the Play Grow Learn camps are built on sports and physical activity, there is room for other things. They do arts and crafts, play videogames, watch movies, help in the kitchen and much more. Each day of camp, the kids are taught the definition and application of a positive word for the day. Life skills and critical thinking are just as important as being able to shoot a basketball.
What draws Scott to the program is she is able to help those in a difficult phase of their life.
"When kids come here after being crammed in a space or from an abusive situation, they can be free," she said.
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