Camp Junior: Empowering Bronx Youth Year-Round
“The summer is when we start our journey with our youth – creating memories, building strong relationships and demonstrating positive and trusted adult mentors. Without touchpoints year-round that initial groundwork might be lost, however when we continue to provide opportunities for our youth to connect with us we build upon their summer experiences. In the summer, we create a safe space for Bronx youth, and throughout the year some youth may not have that space, and we serve as an outlet for them to recreate that feeling while growing interpersonal skills,” Camp Junior Director, Ricky Cruz said.
Honoring Junior’s Legacy
Camp Junior was created in 2019 in memory of Lesandro “Junior” Guzman-Feliz, a 15 year-old victim of gang violence, in partnership with New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and the Palisades Interstate Park Commission.
As the pandemic affected Camp Junior children and their families, The Fresh Air Fund was there to support them and stay connected – creating a series of year-round programs from book clubs to a running group to skill-building workshops.
Camp Junior youth participated in both virtual and in-person programs – keeping them engaged and supported. Activities were located at sites throughout the Bronx and at Camp Junior in Harriman State Park providing Bronx youth safe opportunities to have fun while being outdoors!
Camp Junior started their first book club this year – Changing Chapters. They read The Usual Suspects by Maurice Broadus because of how the characters and stories relate to the youth’s lived experiences and the current climate of our country. The book club met for six weeks with guided weekly discussions about each chapter, lessons they learned and how they connect with the characters.
“Reading is key to all kinds of learning. Unfortunately, many of our campers do not enjoy reading, so one aspect of my job is to help them find the joy in reading. So, we have carefully selected books that not only reflect the demographics of our campers, but also stimulate their curiosity with a variety of stories and ideas,” Roberto Gil, Deputy Director of Camping and Year-Round Programs said.
In partnership with On-Running, the South Bronx Youth Track Club started as a way to empower kids through running and bring more outdoor activity options to Bronx Youth. For six weeks, track club members met every Saturday from 9 am – 11 am.
Track Club sessions include stretching, lap warmup jogs, 100-meter sprints on the track, games on the basketball court and a cool down followed by healthy snacks and reflections about the session.
“We wanted to curate a program where the kids were running through different interactive games, but not bored by the monotony of running laps on the track – make track a fun, stimulating, and exciting time while still putting in the work,” David Kilgore from On-Running said.
“My favorite memory was probably the last week of the track program – seeing how much the kids opened up, shared, and developed in the six weeks. They made new best friends, everyone wanted to take the lead in games and each kid shared what the track club meant to them -how they are going to stay involved and how much they would miss the weekly meet ups,” David says. “The confidence, fitness, and passion that was grown here was remarkable and I can’t wait to see where these kids continue to go. The sky is the limit!”
Power Over Bullying
Camp Junior in partnership with with Ken Wa Kan and Self Offense designed a unique program for Fresh Air parents and children to spend time exercising outdoors and learning about healthy communication skills.
The Ken Wa Kan workshop focused on martial arts and self-defense skills while the Self-Offense workshop centered on a power over bullying curriculum called “Kids on the Offense.”
“The willingness from the parents to really be in that complex and nuanced conversation was so much fun for us. It’s wonderful to get to work with young ones and see them learn from the self-defense portion and ask how can they get out of that grab,” Sensei Zelda Gay of Self-Offense, shares.
“To watch them discover their own power was really, for us, one of the reasons we lead the workshop. It really is magical,” Sensei Zelda said.