Operation Shoestring has been providing after-school and summer activities for children in Jackson for decades — but this year they’re doing things a little differently.
The new venture is called Project Rise and there are many activities throughout the summer that focus on physical and mental health. This includes integrating conversations about wellness into camp activities such as academic enrichment, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) activities, outdoor sports, swimming classes, and mentoring programs.
This year’s camp will serve approximately 125 third through fifth graders over a period of six weeks – free of charge.
Its programs throughout the summer and school year support children in the Jackson Public School system and the greater metropolitan area. Students in Jackson are mostly from low-income black families: 95% of students are black, and 73.8% of students receive free or discounted lunches.
For Laquinta Williams, the camp has been a tremendous help to her family. Williams is a single working mother of Markeem and Akirahs, students at Walton Elementary School who also attend Operation Shoestring’s summer programs.
She believes the summer program is especially important for her son Markeem, whose father recently passed away.
“He likes to talk to them, but he doesn’t usually like to talk to people,” she said of the camp’s staff. “He’s comfortable with them.”
She also said the camp helps her work.
“It’s a lot of money raising kids without help,” she said. “…We appreciate everything. This is the best service we have ever had. They even offer us breakfast when we drop off our kids.”
Supporting children is difficult to do alone, she said, and in past summers she has paid for other summer camps and activities. Operation Shoestring’s free activities mean she has no extra expenses this year.
Robert Langford, executive director of Operation Shoestring, said the pressure the COVID-19 pandemic was putting on communities of color was compounded by the immense stress caused by the 2020 killings of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and those that followed The following social justice movement has created a dire need in families across the country – particularly in the Jackson community.
Recent research shows that depressive and anxiety symptoms in young people have doubled during the pandemic, with 25% of young people experiencing depressive symptoms and 20% experiencing anxiety symptoms.
Suicide rates among black children were already increasing before the pandemic, and black children are now almost twice as likely to die from suicide as white children, according to the US Surgeon General’s Advisory. And children from low-income families are two to three times more likely to develop mental disorders than children from higher-income families – a stunning statistic for a state like Mississippi where about 30% of its children are poor.
To respond to the need for mental health support, Operation Shoestring weaves “positive, affirmative language” into its classrooms and activities, and focuses on physical health and well-being, Langford said.
The organization has partnered with a nutritionist from the University of Mississippi Medical Center to demonstrate the importance of nutrition for overall well-being, such as by conducting cooking and nutrition classes and creating healthy recipes.
The camp’s children also take part in a baking class at Urban Foxes, a local family-owned cake shop.
Langford said Operation Shoestring emphasizes giving students the opportunity to explore outdoor spaces, which they do through partnerships with St. Andrew’s Episcopal School and the Pearl River Keepers, an organization dedicated to protecting the Pearl’s biodiversity River through cleanup operations and water testing and monitoring.
At St. Andrew’s, students are encouraged to take part in a variety of activities such as basketball, soccer or wellness classes.
During a wellness class Monday, Lauren Powell, the school’s director of wellness and high school counselor, got the kids to think about what it means to practice wellness and mindfulness — including laughter, physical activity, dancing and positive affirmations. Students then created a drawing that included five to six positive qualities about themselves, such as: B. brave, curious, intelligent and friendly.
Students enjoy doing cupid shuffles and other dances to wake themselves up and get ready before any other activity, she said, and the dances set the tone for campers to express themselves.
Powell said she enjoys working with this age group because they are able to express their feelings without embarrassment.
When asked about how to deal with children who may come from different backgrounds, Powell explained that St. Andrew’s uses something called “asset framing,” a technique that allows children to be defined first by their assets and ambitions, before they have challenges or deficits.
“These kids come from very rich cultures and very, very rich family traditions,” she said.
Operation Shoestring also continues its tradition of supporting parents of campers. It provided cash support to families in need during the peak of the pandemic and now hosts two separate parent support group sessions, one in the Cultivation Food Hall and the other in the Ecoshed.
“We are really concerned with figuring out how we can create a world that is fair for everyone. And we have a special responsibility in Mississippi because of our history to do what we can with what we have where we are,” Langford said. “So we see ourselves as an organization, as a place where we provide direct services and mediate relationships with other people to build a healthier, fairer and more compassionate world.”