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$20K grant brings free Camp Power program to University Village

DeKALB – For the first time in his life, 12-year-old Rasheed Griffin is going to summer camp.

The DeKalb resident will be one of about 100 children living in the University Village apartment complex to be part of “Camp Power,” a free summer camp launching next week.

He’s excited to have a summer packed with activities in his own backyard, which he hopes will unite people in the neighborhood.

“I think people will know each other and they’ll be friendly instead of fighting,” Griffin said.

Spurred by the DeKalb Police Department’s Youth in Need Task Force, the inaugural Camp Power will give children at University Village an opportunity to continue learning, have a nutritious lunch at camp and stay active during the summer.

The complex’s demographics made it a prime location to launch a youth summer camp, said co-coordinator Mary Hess, an asset specialist with the Ben Gordon Center.

About 617 children live at the multibuilding housing complex where many people receive some federal housing assistance, according to data from the complex’s management. Of the families that live there, 92 percent are headed by women.

A study by NIU’s Center for Governmental Studies showed 83 percent of children at University Village lived below the poverty level and 99 percent qualified for free lunch at school.

Camp Power is free thanks to a $20,000 Champions for Healthy Kids grant from Minnesota-based General Mills Inc. Lisa Cummings with Live Healthy DeKalb County and Nancy Prange, the dietetic internship director for Northern Illinois University, also coordinate the program.

Starting Monday and running through Aug. 14, camp leaders will use the Coordinated Approach to Children’s Health program to encourage physical activity and healthy eating. The program also is designed to deter kids from committing crimes – such as stealing food – during the summer.

Hess sees the program continuing during other school breaks to make sustainable changes in the neighborhood.

“We want to make sure these kids have opportunities like any other children,” Hess said. “I hope the children have fun and the families feel supported and connected to the community.”

So far this year, University Village has been the site of 216 criminal offenses, according to information from DeKalb police. Offenses mainly consist of domestic disturbances and trespassing charges. In the past, police have conducted sweeps to remove people banned from the complex.

Police Chief Gene Lowery – overjoyed to see community groups rally together – sees Camp Power as a way to show children living in the apartment complex that police and firefighters are not their adversaries, but are there to protect them.

“There are certain problems we can’t arrest our way out of,” Lowery said. “This is an area that has been disproportionately affected by crime. We’re trying to show kids what opportunities are out there.”

Children will meet with a handful of NIU athletic teams during the camp. They also will receive academic tutoring through New Hope Baptist Missionary Church and NIU’s literacy program, which data shows many of them need. According to data from DeKalb School District 428, children in third- through eighth-grades living in University Village fall below state and local performance averages in reading and math.

Nathan Hillman, 29, whose three children will attend the camp, said he’s happy to see something positive at University Village, where he’s lived for eight years. He and his wife both work full-time and planned to send the kids to summer camp elsewhere before learning about Camp Power.

“I think it’s awesome,” Hillman said. “It’s run by trustworthy people in a safe environment and that’s what we were looking for.”

Without the summer camp, 9-year-old NaKaya Hillman would probably spend most of her time watching TV, although she knows better. She said the camp is a clear step-up from the summer she might have had.

“I really like reading,” NaKaya said. “I’m excited to learn. And TV rots your brain.”

The camp also will give three moms from University Village a new opportunity.

For the first time, University Village resident Keyana Williams, 26, will wear a shirt declaring herself a mentor. She’s one of three moms and 10 NIU students hired to work the camp this year.

She’ll earn minimum wage while working the camp, but the opportunity is not so much about the money. Williams is more excited to be a positive role model for her daughter, Jakiyah Green, 8, and her son, Jermaine Green, 3.  

“I’m excited for them to see me as staff,” Williams said. “I’ve applied for jobs. I’ve been sitting at the house for five years looking for jobs. So this really made me feel great.”

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