Hand Sanitizing and Singing – Hosting Day Camp in the Middle of a Pandemic

Jun 30, 2020

Though it’s been up and running for more than 40 years, the summer day camp at The Salvation Army Oakbrook Terrace Corps Community Center has a different look this year.

For starters, there’s the contactless drop off and pick up, where parents check their kids in and out of the program each day using their phones and QR codes. There’s also the sanitation breaks, the smaller number of students per group, extra cleaning, the fact that each class has its own school supplies and gym equipment, and more.

What hasn’t changed? The kids’ excitement to be there.

On the first day of camp, 8-year-old Vincent declared, “This is the best day I’ve had since the beginning of the year!” Stephen Jordan, the day camp director, explained that Vincent has been stuck at home helping to take care of his younger siblings for months. “Everyone is grateful,” Stephen said. “The kids more so.”

Brigitte Patalaki said her 8-year-old daughter, Sydney, was so excited camp wasn’t cancelled this year. Her 13-year old son is also a camper, and her 16-year-old son is a counselor this year. “My kids are so happy to be here instead of staying home all summer,” Brigitte said. “It’s home to them.”

Hand Sanitizer and a 16-Foot Python

Planning for the annual multi-week day camp started early this year. To abide by state regulations, the campers are kept to groups of 10 (15 now that Illinois is in Phase 4) by age, with a special group for 13 year olds. All the kids have their temperature taken each morning, answer a few health screening questions, and wear masks all day. “I’ve been so proud of the kids. They’ve been wearing masks without any complaining,” said Lisa Jordan, the Youth Development Director at the Oakbrook Terrace center.

To keep germ-passing to a minimum, the kids stay in place and the teachers move from group to group, teaching lessons about the Bible, crafts, music, recreation, and a combo class of literacy, math, and computers. They added the latter subject about a decade ago because “educators in our congregation and community talked about a loss of learning among students in the summer,” said Lisa. That concern has been especially relevant this year, with the schools closed for much of the final quarter of the school year. 

Instead of field trips, the staff is bringing in special guests, like Dave DiNaso and his Traveling World of Reptiles. The first week of camp, he brought a reptile menagerie, including a lizard, frog, tortoise, and 16-foot python. “The kids loved it,” Stephen said.

Each activity is bookended by hand washing and a sanitizer break. Throughout the day, staff members disinfect the bathrooms and classrooms, clean doorknobs and light fixtures, remind students to use their own crayons and supplies. Each night the facility is deep cleaned.

Despite the extra efforts by staff and campers, the overriding feeling seems to be gratitude for being together. And joy. When Stephen, a 5th grade teacher who’s been out of school since March, hears a class full of students singing a song about God’s love, he smiles. “It’s great to be around kids again,” he said. “I love hearing them laugh.”

Food Boxes and a Warm Welcome

This summer, COVID-19 has also brought extra financial challenges. While the Oakbrook Terrace center has always offered financial assistance to families who need help with the camp’s fees, this summer they’ve provided extra funding for those who lost wages or work due to the coronavirus, like the family with four children ages 4 through 11 whose mom was finally able to return to her job at a hospital now that the camp is providing childcare.

“Mostly by the grace of God and the generosity of many, we’ve been able to provide a sliding scale for payment,” Lisa said. “This gives dignity and ownership to the parents.”

While campers bring their own lunches each day, if that’s a struggle, “We take care of it,” Stephen said. And because the Oakbrook Terrace center also houses a food pantry, whenever there is food left over, staff members give it to the parents when they come to pick up their kids. The 13-year-old campers also help once a week with the drive-up food pantry, taking boxes full of food to each car and learning the blessing of helping others.  

“This is such a special program,” Lisa said. “It’s one of the biggest ways we are present in this community.” A majority of the campers aren’t from their congregation, and come from a variety of nearby communities, including Villa Park, Berkley, Berwyn, and Bollingbrook. The staff strives to make all feel welcome, even the mom who asked if it was ok that her family wasn’t Christian. “You are welcome here,” Lisa told her.

The staff follows up with the campers’ families to invite them to other activities and services throughout the year. “We tell them, ‘This is who we are year-round,’” Lisa said. “’You’re already part of our family.’”

Brigitte certainly felt that welcome. “I didn’t know this was a church at first,” she said as her three kids climbed in her car at the end of another day at camp. “My kids came home one day and said they were learning how to pray. I said, ‘One day I’ll visit.’” Three years ago, she finally did. “Everyone was so nice, I haven’t left since. Every Sunday we are there. This place has become family.”

The Oakbrook Terrace Day Camp runs Monday through Friday from June 22 to July 31, with no camp on July 3. Camp hours are 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. with before and after care hours available from 7:30 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. This year’s them is Concrete and Cranes – Building on the Love of Jesus. Find more information or register your kid(s) here, or call 630.629.4948.

See a list of all our youth programs throughout the greater Chicagoland area this summer.  

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Learn about all the ways The Salvation Army is responding to the coronavirus – as well as how you can help – at salarmychicago.org/coronavirus

For tax purposes: The Salvation Army Metropolitan Division EIN is 36-2167910.

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