Grant Program Helps Youth Across Washington Access Summer Learning

A small turtle is at the center of the picture, being held on the arm of a teenage girl.
Sophie Amundson holds a baby red-eared slider at the summer day camp held by the Yakima Area Arboretum.

As soon as Sophie Amundson revealed what was in her hands, campers swarmed around her, eager for a chance to see and hold the creature.

It was a small red-eared slider, a species of turtle that is invasive in Washington. Amundson, a camp volunteer at the Yakima Area Arboretum, named the turtle Larold and let campers hold the palm-sized animal.

Amundson said going to the arboretum’s ponds to catch animals like Larold is one of her favorite activities — and she recognized the importance of engaging with nature in that way.

“Nature is kind of dying now because of humans — people littering, pollution,” said Amundson, who attended the summer camp for 7 years before becoming a volunteer counselor. “We have to try our best to save what we have left of it.”

Campers at the arboretum learned about local plants and animals, invasive species, and their habitats as part of the statewide Summer Experiences and Enrichment for Kids (SEEK) program. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) earmarked a total of $12 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding for summer programs held in 2021 and 2022.

Two state organizations — School’s Out Washington (SOWA) and the Association of Washington Cities (AWC) — administered the funding, and worked with the Washington Recreation and Parks Association (WRPA) to develop summer camp programming and the process for community-based organizations to apply for grants. A total of 216 programs across Washington were supported by ESSER grants in 2022.

Elizabeth Whitford, Chief Executive Officer of SOWA, said the organization wanted to take part in any opportunity to support young people impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Young people really are exhibiting behavior issues and other challenges as they were coming back to programming. Having really positive social time outdoors, all the different components of the priorities for the summer programming were really in line with what we think young people need and want right now,” Whitford said. “Because of our experience in giving out other grants, we did believe that we were well positioned to be able to get those dollars to organizations who otherwise might not be able to access them.”

Because SOWA works as an intermediary between the state and community-based organizations, it can help those organizations access state funding when applying directly through a state agency may be a barrier, Whitford said. In particular, she added, organizations in less resourced parts of the state are often less connected to mainstream sources of funding.

As Whitford said, SOWA wanted to bring in a “geographic equity lens” in awarding grants, and AWC worked to do the same.

“Within our limitations, [we] really looked at trying to make sure we were getting dollars to programs around the state, prioritizing programs that are serving youth in poverty and youth of color,” Whitford said.

Partnering with WRPA helped AWC identify parks and recreation organizations that could reach those populations, said Jacob Ewing, Special Projects Coordinator for AWC.

“Parks and rec opportunities are one of the best opportunities for kids to get out and interact with other kids, to try new activities, to challenge themselves,” Ewing said.

This summer’s camp programs included a range of activities, from learning about pollinators in Ellensburg to biking and kayaking in Seattle.

In Ellensburg, the summer day camp program was facilitated by the Kittitas Environmental Education Network (KEEN), a non-profit organization that works to provide nature-based education to all age groups. To learn about pollinators, campers created art and wrote in nature journals, along with participating in fun activities like scavenger hunts and games.

Opportunities to both have fun and learn new things are important for kids, said Adrienne Pinsoneault, Program Supervisor with KEEN.

“As a former teacher in public schools myself, I think it’s super important because you lose a lot over the summer,” Pinsoneault said. “This is an opportunity to keep kids engaged — not necessarily in traditional school activities but it keeps their minds engaged. … The opportunity to make friends is really critical as well for kids’ mental health and wellbeing, especially when we haven’t had those opportunities in a really long time.”

This was the first summer that KEEN has been able to have a day camp, thanks to the ESSER grant it received. The funding was used to hire counselors and get program supplies, which ultimately made it possible for the day camp to be free or low cost for its participants.

Jill Scheffer, President of KEEN, said that capability has been of critical importance.

“I’m loving the fact that we have so much more diversity in our programs than we’ve ever had before, and that is because we’re able to provide it as free or low cost,” Scheffer said. “We’re also able to pay our counselors and our employees a decent wage. … These [counselors] have been out in the parks in 100-degree weather all summer, working hard to engage kids in our community with environmental education. That’s thrilling, and that’s life changing. When I was young, I had those kinds of opportunities and experiences, and it changed the course of my life.”

Two young girls are sitting at a camp table, focused on doing arts and crafts.
Two Ellensburg campers created bees out of yarn and pipe cleaners to accompany their drawings of flowers.

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The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction

Led by Supt. Chris Reykdal, OSPI is the primary agency charged with overseeing K–12 education in Washington state.