The University of Alabama, a major university whose football team will compete once again for the national number one slot in collegiate football in three days, is only forty-nine minutes away. The bustling metropolis of Birmingham is only one hundred miles away. Yet, for the children of Hale County, Alabama, they might as well live on the other side of the country. They live in one of the most rural and impoverished areas of Alabama in what is known as the Blackbelt region of the state. Residents of this are at an economic disadvantage with very limited resources. The high school graduation rate is only 34% with 74% of households earning less than $30,000 per year. Almost 200 families live without plumbing and healthcare is nonexistent for most.
According to the United Way of West Alabama, 1 in 4 Alabamians is functionally illiterate, unable to read, write, or use basic math skills and technology in everyday life. According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 60% of K-12 school children read below the level needed to proficiently process the written materials used in their grade levels. Children who have not already developed basic literacy practices when they enter school are three to four times more likely to drop out of school.
According to the 2014 Alabama Kids Count Data Book, compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 26% of Alabama children are living in poverty; 9.7% of Alabama teens are not in school and not employed; 25.8% of Alabama children are food insecure; 40.1% of Alabama fourth graders are not proficient in reading; 20% of Alabama’s students do not graduate from high school.
The Sawyerville Work Project is, on paper, a day camp. It is an outreach project sponsored by the Youth Department of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama & local community volunteers. It takes place in the summer for just a few weeks, and for that camp session, the children that attend the camp are not framed in the light of the region’s poverty. They are simply kids, having fun, in a place created solely for them.
The Sawyerville Day Camp’s location originated at the Head Start Center in the small town of Sawyerville, hence the name. Within a few years of hosting the camp, the Center could no longer accommodate the increased numbers of campers and staff volunteers. The elementary school in nearby Greensboro welcomed this project and the partnership has continued for a successful thirteen years.
Sawyerville Day Camp ministry began in 1993. The Blackbelt Convocation knew they needed to embrace the residents of the area, not just those in their church pews and the Diocese of Alabama Youth Department needed an outreach program for senior high students. The answer to both problems became the Sawyerville Work Project, now known as the Sawyerville Day Camp. It is supported by many people.
People serve as prayer partners, staff members, organize book drives, gather paper products, provide meals and make financial gifts. The Episcopal Diocese has committed substantial funds to this ministry. The generous people of the Black Belt have opened up their homes and churches for staff housing and meals. Volunteers from within and outside of the Episcopal circle lend time and talent. High school, college, and adult staff come from all over the state to serve as counselors. The Hale County School Board permits use of school facilities and buses. This project is woven together by hundreds of different supporters, all working together to form the Sawyerville experience.
The mission of the Yellowhammer Literacy Project, born out of the Sawyerville Day Camp, is to help close the achievement gap and prevent summer learning loss in Greensboro, Alabama. The YLP works toward this mission by hosting a multi-week summer academic program in which students will participate in reading intervention, engage in creative writing, and strengthen their literacy skills. Additionally, the YLP is invested in helping students grow as scholars and citizens through participation in academic field trips, community engagement, and other enrichment opportunities.
Summer 2015 was a huge success for the Yellowhammer Literacy Project! When we first assessed the students in April, 58% were performing below grade level. By the end of this program, 88% of students grew by at least one reading level. Of that 88%, 66% grew by at least two levels. Nine students saw growth by three to five levels in a mere three weeks!
Not only did these students grow academically, but what cannot be tested or shown through the results is that these kids were encouraged to enjoy reading, were praised for their efforts, and became more confident in their own abilities by the end of the program. One child said it best in his final reflection, “I really am smart.”
The Humanitarian efforts of the Sawyerville Day Camp are led by Leslie Manning but she would be the first to acknowledge the help of hundreds, both volunteer staff and interns as well as the volunteers who fed, donate, and serve as prayer partners. Each child received a swimsuit, towel, and book as well as a backpack. For many this is the first time they have owned any of these items which serve as outward, visible signs of the larger community of caring that supports them and embraces them.
Now over twenty years old, this day camp has counselors who were once campers. They believed in the promise shown by the Sawyerville Day Camp of a brighter future and by those who embraced them and they have succeeded. Kids who once had never heard of a college are now college graduates, having learned to believe in themselves to make a better world for themselves. People of all ages, races, and stages of life create the humanitarian efforts that result in Sawyerville Day Camp. They come together and embrace each other.
I hope you are able to be a part of something like Sawyerville Day Camp. Contact your local YMCA or YWCA or Salvation Army, Easter Seals, or local religious groups. All will be able to put you in touch with a program that you can give aid to with your time and talents and, if possible, monetary assistance. When we embrace each other and ourselves, we make the world a better place. Sawyerville Day Camp is but one example. For more information, they can be reached at www.sawyervilledaycamp.org.