Youngsters hone skills at camp

Ashante Travis, a seventh-grader at Ponchatoula Junior High, had never before taken acting classes.

The shy teen didn’t give the extracurricular activity much thought until she got a taste of it during the Future Leaders Youth program at the city’s Michael J. Kenney Center.

The experience may lead Ashante to join the drama club this fall, the 12-year-old said.

The eight-week program, for children age 5 to 14 who are entering pre-kindergarten to eighth grade, is not just fun and games. More than 100 at-risk children are spending their summer break learning reading, writing and arithmetic by spending 30 minutes a day at one of eight recreational and educational classes at the center at 601 W. Coleman Ave.

“Our focus is on education, physical fitness and behavior and social skills,” camp Director April Simmons said. “We wanted to have something different instead of the kids just running around.”

Children engage in a variety of activities, including volleyball, arts and crafts, dancing, computer lab courses, behavior skill classes, spelling bees, mathematics, geography, music, physical education, and also LEAP test preparation and pretesting for the older children, Simmons said.

The youths also get to learn in different environments, even the local park, she said.

Though the camp is not sponsored by the city of Hammond, Mayor Mayson Foster said it is important to hold it in a city facility.

“The purpose of the program this year is to bridge the gap between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next, a time which educators will agree is a ‘reverse learning’ time for students when many of them forget the information they learned in the previous year,” Foster said in an email.

Certified teachers from several parishes, like math teacher Patti Durel Bratcher, of Hammond, teach the youths the skills they will need to succeed during the 2013-14 school year.

The learning is more hands-on, Bratcher said. “We do fun activities with them, not just paper and pencil stuff.”

Chassidy Patterson, 13, a student at Hammond Junior High School, said she now knows how to interact with her peers, to follow rules and knows what her parents expect from her.

Gage Henderson said he’s learning the top 20 manners that adults like to see, including proper cellphone etiquette, not interrupting others and respecting adults.

“We’ve learned how to make better choices for the future,” said Courtland Myles, an eighth-grader at Nesom Middle School in Tickfaw.

The eight-week camp, which began May 28, is the brainchild of Simmons, the camp director, and Hammond native Neica Braziel.

“Since I was a child, we didn’t have good places for children to go during the summer,” Braziel said.

“And, I wanted to be a leader for the children in our community.”

Simmons ran a similar program in Buford, Ga., from 2009 to 2011.

Foster said the program is a precursor to an after-school initiative that a committee led by Anette Kirylo and Tina Roper will be implementing soon.

“We have applied for grant funding to see if this can become a reality,” Foster said.