As we all know, this is a summer like no other. With the threat of Covid-19, James River Park education staff is missing the typical glorious chaos of in-person summer camps; we’re missing that chaos something fierce. We’d be getting to work early, laying out equipment and plans for the day, filling water bottles and lubing bike chains. We’d arrange the PFDs and head out to meet the bus, eagerly awaiting gaggles of children. As campers spill off the buses toward us, enthusiasm levels might suggest that camp exists for the joy of our staff and that we bring the campers along for the ride. We love swimming in the river with them just as much as they love swimming in the river; there is very little in life as fantastic as introducing the James to a child for the first time. We share in every camper’s wonder, amazement, joy, and—yes—trepidation at their first encounter with this mighty new friend. We only hope to be able also to share our abiding love for and commitment to this special place with those campers. On every adventure, with every camper, we remind them that this river and this place belongs to them, the camper, the Richmond city resident who may never have seen or interacted with the river before. It is our great privilege and responsibility to be a part of this place and to care for it.

But this is a summer like no other. There will be no buses spilling eager little ones into our care, no gleeful (fearful?) shrieks as tiny hands cling to ours while we float down lazy current. There will be no holding a bike seat, and then letting it go, as a camper takes her first independent pedal strokes and we witness pride at achievement and the promise of newfound autonomy. These losses are hard. They are hard for us, as they are hard on families and especially on those kids who aren’t spending their summer days as campers. It is hard to be removed from them at the moment when, as a community, we are undergoing the dual collective trauma of Covid and long overdue social upheaval.

What remains unchanged, in this summer like no other? Our commitment and passion for this place and for this community. Our enthusiasm to support the children of this city and to give them their own river to know and love. Our mission to improve the quality of access to James River Park for the most marginalized of Richmond.

So what does enacting that mission look like while adhering to social distance? How do we promote access while restricting folks’ access to us, the educators?

Like so many other “outdoor” educators around the nation, we have gone virtual. Preparation includes stuffing thousands of bags of soil into other bags (with the help of a few wonderful volunteers) to distribute free “camp” kits to kids picking up free meals throughout the city. It looks like clinging to the whimsy of summer by making silly videos for kids to see from home, and preparing camp sessions to conduct over video calls. It looks like the back of our education van filled with hammers to accompany 288 birdhouses for distribution to Richmond kids as a way to talk about habitats and bird species, and to give them a hands-on STEM project to work on independently. Frankly, we’re not quite sure yet what living into this mission is going to look like quite yet, but as virtual sessions roll out, we are thinking about a lot of the same things we think about every year: we incorporate social emotional learning goals into every program. We fold adventures and environmental stewardship into one package. We want to have fun and we want every participant to have fun, and spurred by that fun, we plan to grow an entire generation of environmental stewards. Our staff will bring to these online platforms the positivity and energy of every other summer to this summer, like no other.

 

To get involved, either by volunteering to make free camp kits or to register a little one for virtual camps, please email [email protected].

Penelope Davenport, Outdoor Education Supervisor
City of Richmond, James River Park System