by ALEXANDRA RETTER
For Eileen Moeller, seeing students fully perform one of Shakespeare’s plays is the highlight of Great River Shakespeare Festival’s (GRSF) summer programming for children. “That’s always one of my favorite performances of the year, because you see kids who are maybe 10 or 11 years old recite these full monologues,” Moeller, who is GRSF’s marketing and sales director, said. Audience members can tell the students are confident and understand what they are saying, she added. “The kids always bring their own twist on everything to it, and it just makes it a really engaging thing to watch, to see how they make these things their own,” she said.
Last summer, some local groups’ leaders had to make the tough but safe choice to cancel their summer programming for children, while others had to tackle the challenge of creatively moving their programs online or adapting them significantly to align with COVID protocols. This spring, many local groups’ organizers are thrilled to be planning a return to more in-person programming for summer 2021. The programming will give families the chance to have their children take part in engaging activities and embrace the freedom of summer while continuing to learn and grow.
“I feel very passionate about our VBS [vacation bible school] program, and it’s one of the best things that we offer for children and all our youth helpers, so I’m excited to have the life back in the parish during VBS week,” St. Mary’s Director of Parish Life and Faith Formation Julie Fitzgerald said.
Summer programming is more than just a way to fill the long, hot days of the warmest part of the year for children, leaders agreed. Its value carries them into adulthood. It becomes a meaningful part of the cycle of life for many community members and involves individuals across generations, several organizers said. “My daughter actually is one of the adult leaders for the preschoolers, so that has made me proud that she is willing to take time off work to be one of our adult leaders,” Fitzgerald said. She added, “And it just brings me joy as a grandmother to see my grandchildren participate and learn about their faith in a fun way.” Some children who grow up attending VBS ultimately help lead the program when they are older, Fitzgerald said.
At the Winona Family YMCA, a similar phenomenon happens, Aquatics and Recreation Director Jessica White said, as many of the young adults who now serve in roles at the Y such as counselors and lifeguards started in the Y’s child care or summer camp programs. “I am really excited to see the way that I think our counselors will grow into even better counselors and young adults with how they’re working with the kids,” White said.
Summer is the highlight of the year for many children as the season when they enjoy an extended break from school. Particularly because of the challenges the pandemic has brought, several leaders said, it is vital for children to have an opportunity to just be kids enjoying life. The organizers hope their programming helps children have that experience. “So I want these kids to be joyful and carefree and enjoy their summer,” White said. She added, “I want to see smiles, and I want to see them having fun.”
Morrie Miller Athletic Foundation Youth Baseball Coach Matt Smith said he wants players to enjoy themselves as they develop their skills. “It’s just looking forward to having the kids out on the fields, out there having fun, making memories and playing baseball,” he said.
Several organizers said they are following COVID-19 guidelines as they plan their programming. According to the most recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations, all those at summer camps should wear masks, maintain their distance and take part in activities outside as much as possible. The CDC guidance also recommends that camp leaders place children in small groups that do not intermingle.
Other leaders agreed that skill development is an important piece of summer programming. Organizers at the Shakespeare festival hope that children who participate in GRSF programming learn about trusting their abilities. “The biggest part of it is building the confidence in themselves and finding new ways to explore a different art form,” Moeller said.
Minnesota Conservatory for the Arts (MCA) Managing Director Jamie Schwaba echoed that and said she hopes children learn life skills, such as communication and public speaking.
Summer programming is a way to interact with others and build community during the pandemic as well, several organizers said. Children connect with other children and professional artists through GRSF programming, Moeller said. Schwaba said a meaningful part of offering programming is “the opportunity to connect. To reconnect again.”
The Y will offer programming at Camp Wenonah and child care this summer. GRSF will host classes for children of all ages, including a performance basics class for the youngest learners and a filmmaking class for the oldest. MCA will offer summer camps in activities such as dance and mindfulness. At the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, children and their families may examine the artwork on display closely to find the details described on a bingo card in an activity museum staff call Bingo Overboard. The Winona Public Library plans to host some programs, such as a story time tour, at parks in Winona.
Cotter Schools will offer academic courses, in addition to programs including sports camps, marching band and a bike lab for learning about bike repair. Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) will offer academic programming. WAPS Community Education will host child care, sports camps and activity camps. Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota will host several sports camps.
Pleasant Valley Church will offer Camp Awesome Online. Participants will choose classes to take, and the classes will cover topics from chemistry to baking to gardening. Central Lutheran Church plans to hold a VBS and events for teenagers such as a sports day. The St. Martin’s Early Learning Center will offer child care and pre-kindergarten programming. St. Martin’s Lutheran Church will hold a VBS, as well.
Those interested in learning more may visit the groups’ websites.