Operation Shoestring has been providing after school and summer activities to children in Jackson for decades – but this year, they’re doing things a bit differently.
The new undertaking is called “Project Rise,” and activities focused on physical and mental health are peppered throughout the summer. That includes integrating conversations about wellness into camp activities such as academic enrichment, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) activities, outdoor sports, swim classes and mentoring programs.
This year’s camp is serving about 125 third through fifth graders over a six-week period – free of charge.
Its programs during the summer and school year support kids in the Jackson Public School system and metro area. Students in Jackson are mostly from low-income families of color: 95% of students are Black, and 73.8% of students are on free or reduced lunch.
For Laquinta Williams, the camp has been a tremendous help for 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 programming is especially important for her son Markeem, whose father recently passed away.
“He likes to talk to them, and he doesn’t usually like to talk to people,” she said of the camp staffers. “He feels comfortable with them.”
She also said the camp helps her to be able to work.
“It’s a lot of money raising children with no help,” she said. “ … We appreciate everything. This is the best service we have had hands down. They even offer us breakfast when we drop our kids off.”
Supporting children is difficult to do alone, she said, and in past summers she’s paid for other summer camps and activities. The free activities at Operation Shoestring mean she doesn’t have that extra expense this year.
Robert Langford, executive director of Operation Shoestring, said that the pressures that the COVID-19 pandemic had on communities of color, compounded by the immense stress caused by the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery in 2020 and the ensuing social justice movement, created an urgent need within families across the country – especially in the Jackson community.
Recent research shows that young people’s depressive and anxiety symptoms have doubled during the pandemic, with 25% of youth experiencing depressive symptoms and 20% experiencing anxiety symptoms.
Suicide rates among Black children were increasing even before the pandemic, and Black children are now almost twice as likely to die by suicide than white children, according to the U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory. And children from low-income families are two to three times more likely to develop mental health disorders than those who are from higher income families – a startling statistic for a state like Mississippi, where around 30% of its children are poor.
To respond to the need for mental health support, Operation Shoestring weaves “positive, affirming language” into its classrooms and activities, as well as focusing on physical health and wellness, Langford said.
The organization has partnered with a dietitian from the University of Mississippi Medical Center to illustrate the importance of nutrition in overall wellness, such as conducting cooking and nutrition classes and creating healthy recipes.
Kids at camp will also partake in a baking class at Urban Foxes, a local family-owned pie shop.
Langford said that Operation Shoestring values being able to provide students the ability to explore outdoor spaces, which they do through partnerships with St. Andrew’s Episcopal School and the Pearl River Keepers, an organization that works to protect the biodiversity of the Pearl River through cleanups and water testing and monitoring.
At St. Andrew’s, students are encouraged to engage in different activities, such as basketball, soccer or wellness classes.
During a wellness class on Monday, Lauren Powell, the school’s director of wellness and upper school counselor, had the children reflect on what it means to practice wellness and to be mindful – including laughter, physical activity, dancing and positive affirmations. Students then created a drawing that incorporated five to six positive characteristics about themselves, such as brave, curious, intelligent and kind.
Students enjoy doing the cupid shuffle and other dances to wake themselves up and get ready before any other activities, she said, and the dances set the tone for the campers to be more self-expressive.
Powell said she enjoys working with this age group because they’re able to express their emotions without embarrassment.
When asked how to deal with children who may come from different backgrounds, Powell explained that St. Andrew’s employs something called “asset framing,” a way of enabling children to first be defined by their assets and aspirations before their challenges or deficits.
“These kids come from very rich cultures, and very, very rich family traditions,” she said.
Operation Shoestring is also continuing its tradition of offering support to campers’ parents. It provided cash support to families in need during the height of the pandemic and is now hosting two separate support group sessions for parents, one in Cultivation Food Hall and the other in the Ecoshed.
“We really are about figuring out how we can build a world that is equitable for everybody. And we have a special responsibility in Mississippi because of our past to do what we can with what we have where we are,” said Langford. “So we see ourselves as an organization, as a place to provide direct services and to broker relationships with other people for building a healthier, more just, more compassionate world.”