Good Shepherd Church and St. Louis Church in Alexandria had a
dream of collaborating on a project that would alleviate
poverty in their area. With the help of Tim Slayter,
principal of nearby Bucknell Elementary School, they decided
on an enrichment program for students who might otherwise
fall behind academically during summer break. For the kids,
it's just plain old summertime fun.
"It's not like other summer schools," said Camila Valle, a
rising sixth-grader. "This one is fun and active."
Franklin Mejia Amador, a rising fifth-grader, also gave it a
ringing endorsement. "It's better than staying home and
playing video games."
Attacking poverty at its roots
After speaking with Slayter, the two parishes knew they
wanted to focus on education. They turned to the Catholic
Campaign for Human Development, a program of the United
States Catholic Conference of Bishops, which issues grants to
groups that directly aid the poor on a local level.
Currently in its pilot year, the project offers a three-week
summer enrichment camp to 23 Bucknell students - rising
first- through sixth-graders. Public schools along the Route
1 corridor, such as Bucknell, are some of the poorest in the
area, said Susan Grunder, director of social ministry at Good
Shepherd. Eighty percent receive free or reduced-price lunch.
"Every year, we would look for opportunities to keep the kids
engaged academically, using their brains in lots of different
ways," said Slayter, who recently left Bucknell to head
another local school, Cameron Elementary. Many parents cannot
afford camp or find transportation for their children.
"When they don't have access to go to summer camp, they lose
out," said Grunder.
St. Louis provided the space for the camp while Good Shepherd
made lunches and donated several books for the children to
take home. The curriculum is filled with project- based
learning and prioritizes problem-solving, fostering a
growth-mindset in the children and encouraging empathy.
Slayter, a parishioner of Sacred Heart Church in Manassas and
a candidate in the diocesan permanent diaconate program,
believes the children will come away with a sense that they
are loved and cared for by this community. "When somebody
creates a place for them
when people that think they
matter, that learning matters, that becoming a productive
citizen matters, they build a (sense of) significance," he
Play dough and earthquakes
"It looks like tortilla," one boy shrieked. "No, it looks
After breakfast, the younger cohort of summer campers spent
the morning trying to create the perfect play dough
consistency using flour, water and salt. Instead of something
moldable, the current recipe had yielded a goopy mess. In the
next room, older students cut straws and pipe cleaners to
make model buildings that could withstand a mock earthquake.
"They think they're having fun, but they don't realize how
much they're learning," said Marcia St. John-Cunning, a
parishioner of St. Louis and the parent liaison at Bucknell.
For St. John-Cunning, the best part of camp is the sense of
resiliency the kids are gaining. One day, a student started
crying because she couldn't figure out how to play a strategy
game. The next day, she won the game. St. John-Cunning and
the teacher explained that they were proud of her, not
because she won, but because she tried again.
"For this student, the power of having that life skill (of)
not giving up is transformative," said St. John-Cunning.
"It's not going to show up in a test, but (it's) having
'Taking care of our brothers and sisters'
St. John-Cunning has big hopes for the future of the summer
program. If they can find a way to provide transportation,
she hopes to open the camp to more students from different
elementary schools in the area. Through this school year, she
wants to visit each child's home and to occasionally host
after-school programs that will reinforce the lessons learned
In her work as a parent liaison, St. John-Cunning has
witnessed firsthand the many ways poverty can hinder a
child's academic potential. "I see so many things and I want
to do so much and I just can't. It can be very overwhelming,
so I just pick that one small thing and try to do that well,"
She finds inspiration from the Mother Teresa quote, "We can
do small things with great love."
"For Catholics, that's our calling," said St. John-Cunning.
Though he has left Bucknell, Slayter plans to stay close to
the project. "This is where the rubber meets the road," he
said. "And this is where the church asks us to be." He hopes
that the Holy Spirit will lead the families involved in the
camp closer to Christ. "But at a minimum, we're taking care
of our brothers and sisters."
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