MERIDEN — On a mostly sunny Thursday with temperatures hovering in the mid-80s, Cuno Camp on Beaver Lake Road was abuzz with activities.
Groups of children competed in sack races, tire jumps, dove down a water slide and dunk tank, jumped in a bounce house, and sat down for face painting. Several hundred yards away, along the watery expanse of Beaver Pond other groups were out kayaking and fishing. And those were just some of the activities that were taking place at the day camp, which the Boys & Girls Club of Meriden has long overseen.
Through a combination of local and statewide allocations of federal COVID-19 relief monies, summer camp providers, city leaders and educators in the Meriden Public Schools have increased students’ access to summer programming — efforts intended to stave off summer learning loss for school-aged children, prepare them for the upcoming school year and to help those students progress socially and emotionally.
Statewide, the State Department of Education invested more than $12 million of its COVID-19 relief funds with local programs like the Boys & Girls Club of Meriden to enhance summer programs. Locally, the city of Meriden allocated $1.2 million of its federal funding through the American Rescue Plan Act to provide vouchers that enabled children to attend camps including Cuno Camp, the Meriden YMCA’s Mountain Mist Day Camp, Girls Inc. and Valentin Karate.
Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, during a visit to Cuno Camp late Thursday morning, extolled the impact of the investments, which prioritized communities like Meriden that Bysiewicz said have been “disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.”
The grants enabled children to participate in high quality programming, socialize and be prepared when they return to school, Bysiewicz noted.
‘It really does make a difference’
Meriden Boys & Girls Club Director Larue Graham said the investments have enabled Meriden children “a wonderful opportunity” to get outdoors and to participate in interactive programs.
“It’s allowed a lot of kids who normally could not afford camp the ability to come to camp the entire summer,” Graham said. “So we want to thank the state for putting the investment in our kids. It really does make a difference, their social emotional well being, and being able to have the opportunity to learn different things.”
Following the summer of 2020, when participation in summer camps was largely restricted due to the pandemic, programs rebounded the following year with help from pandemic relief funds.
This week’s theme at the Cuno Camp was carnival, hence the emphasis on carnival-like activities, explained Krystle Blake, the assistant director of the Boys & Girls Club.
State Rep. Hilda Santiago and state Rep. Michael Quinn joined Bysiewicz and Boys & Girls Club leaders. Both Santiago and Quinn relayed the importance of providing children with social interaction and learning opportunities.
The isolation children experienced during the early months and the first summer of the pandemic took its toll on children, Santiago noted.
“This summer, being out with other children helps them socialize. It keeps them busy. It puts their minds on other stuff because they’re having fun,” Santiago said. At the same time, children are learning. “They’re learning to be with each other.”
She added, “Mental health is very important because we want to ensure that kids don’t get bored, depressed or be isolated.”
A Record-Journal reporter contacted the campaign of Republican state Rep. Laura Devlin, who is running against Bysiewicz, a Democrat, in the race for lieutenant governor.
Devlin, in a written statement, told the newspaper, “If there is anything this pandemic experience taught us, it is the incredible importance of organizations like Connecticut's Boys and Girls Clubs and the various after school and summer break programs offered to our students.
“Every day I interact with families who depend on these opportunities. Not only do these programs provide children a safe and enriching way to be occupied and active all day, but it allows for their parents to sustain full-time employment with the confidence that their children are in a positive environment. After school programs and summer camps are tremendous aids to the social and emotional development of all children,” Devlin stated.
Chance to growth, make learning fun
Boys & Girls Club leaders estimated that over the course of the entire summer, some 3,000 to 3,500 children — many of them from Meriden — will participate in programs at Cuno Camp.
For older students, camp provides volunteer and employment opportunities, and similar opportunities for growth.
Makayla Ori, 13, is a junior counselor. Ori, who heads to Wilcox Technical High School in the fall, leads a group of about a dozen children each day — guiding them through activities on land, or near the pond.
“I’ve seen a lot of progress throughout, with the kids,” Ori said, adding that the opportunity to be a junior counselor seemed interesting. She will continue to work through most of the summer.
The city has distributed 1,742 vouchers for its Get Kids to Camp Initiative, according to figures shared by Chris Bourdon, Meriden’s director of Parks & Recreation.
Camp providers are not the only agencies providing summer programming. The Meriden Public Schools is offering a host of summer programming for students, which blend academic enrichment and socially interactive activities, offered jointly with the city’s summer camp providers.
One of the programs is targeted for elementary school-aged students, explained Heidi Driscoll, the district’s summer program director.
The program’s goal is to help curb summer learning loss, while making continued learning fun, and striking a balance between the two, Driscoll said.
“Kids want to come. They want to come to summer school,” Driscoll said, adding “We’ve all seen the impact of COVID. This is a good place for them to be, at school, talking to their friends.
“…They appreciate being in school and they appreciate going to camp,” Driscoll said, adding that students who’ve participated “ couldn’t tell me enough how much they loved coming to school.”