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Adopt a Camper helps keep kids safe

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image Armando Rios escorts children from Riverview Elementary School to the Riverview Park on Capitano Drive for their after school events. Riverview is one of the few parks that has not seen a drop in enrollment since buses were cut from schools to parks becau

After-school programs that had once cost $20 per week went to $48, and summer camp fees went from around $150 (plus extra field trip and activity costs) to nearly $500.

By PENNY FLETCHER

SOUTH COUNTY — When county budget cuts started hitting the parks department three years ago children’s programs were the first thing affected.

That’s because they were the most expensive to operate, and the money just wasn’t there, Mark Thornton, director of the Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department explained in a story in The Observer News and Riverview Current when the cuts began to hurt South County residents.

After-school programs that had once cost $20 per week went to $48, and summer camp fees went from around $150 (plus extra field trip and activity costs) to nearly $500. Many children could no longer participate and staff layoffs loomed.

The worst part was that now, with parents working, many children from low-income families were home alone for long periods of time after school, and whole days when school was out.

In April 2009, Mary Clements-Fowler, who works in the parks department, came up with an idea and after researching other summer camp programs she presented it to the department heads. They agreed, and May 7, 2009, the first donor checks were written for the Adopt a Camper Program.

But the program didn’t bring back the kids in the poorest areas because it lacked funding.

“In years past there has been a waiting list at most recreation centers to get into our after-school recreation program and summer camps. Today, to the best of my knowledge, the only site that currently has a waiting list is the Westchase Recreation Center in Tampa,”said Kemly Green, a county spokeswoman.

In fact, calls and visits to all of South County’s six recreation centers show they now all have openings for both after-schoolers and summer campers. Last week when I called Balm Park, only four children were in attendance after school.
So how can the parks make the Adopt a Camper Program work?

Jack Reeder, director of Apollo Beach’s Recreation Center, got some ideas.

The staff and kids there began to hold fundraisers and in less than one season, came up with $1,800.

“We got the (Apollo Beach) Woman’s Club involved, and they donated $1,500 of it,” Reeder said. “The Civic Association gave $150 and then we held a Flea Market and charged $5 a table.” Other events are now in the planning.
Apollo Beach was onto something. The problem was that some areas of South County didn’t have the donors available in Apollo Beach.

People would support events if they could see the need, and if there was some way they could donate when they couldn’t participate in an event.

Sandra Holmes, director at Riverview’s park grabbed hold of the idea and March 19 that park is having a community yard sale from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the park, 7807 Capitano Street (off Riverview Drive, just east of U.S. 301). Sellers may rent a space for $20 or $25 depending on the location of their tables and all proceeds and donations go directly toward helping children attend the programs whose parents cannot afford to register them.

For more information on this before the event, contact Holmes or Martha Martinez at (813) 671-7617.

Businesses, civic organizations, religious groups and individuals can also help by donating cash- checks or money orders- to the Adopt a Camper fund at their nearest park.

“All our centers are in need of assistance to help children that need a safe place to go while their parents work during the day where they know that they will participate in activities such as sport leagues, boys clubs, girls clubs, computer lab, outdoor games, indoor games arts and crafts and more,” Green said.

Organizations and businesses can help by sponsoring a child at a specific park for a certain amount of time during the after-school recreation program, or they can sponsor a child for the summer camp program. Funds can be for a designated site.

They can also be sponsors of sport leagues which would allow area children to play in a sports league.

Adopt a Camper is for children between the ages of 5 and 12.

More information may be obtained by visiting the Parks, Recreation and Conservation website at www.hillsboroughcounty.org/parks. Or by contacting Fowler at (813) 635-3519 or their local park.

Take a look behind the stories.  Follow Penny Fletcher on Twitter.

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