August 17, 2016

Building Character and Self Esteem By the Lake and In the Woods

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THE GREAT OUTDOORS: Campers at the Princeton Blairstown Center’s Summer Bridge Program count canoeing as a favorite activity. Now in its second summer, the program serves kids from Trenton, Newark, and New York City. (Photo Courtesy of Princeton Blairstown Center)

Pam Gregory has worked for several organizations that give underserved urban youth a chance to spend time in peaceful, bucolic settings. But none have impressed her as much as the Princeton-Blairstown Center (PBC), a 107-year-old summer camp on 264 acres of wilderness in New Jersey’s Delaware Water Gap.

“People say it’s the best kept secret in Princeton,” said Ms. Gregory, the organization’s president and CEO. “One of the things I love about this place is that while all of the other sites are beautiful, this one is the best cared for. We have had three caretakers since the 1930s. People take such pride in the ownership.”

Last week, the PBC concluded the second year for its five-week Summer Bridge Program. Some 450 children from Trenton, Newark, and New York came to the camp for week-long immersions designed to narrow the summer learning gap and foster positive social skills.

The students attend in groups of 80 to 100, living in vintage cabins built in the 1930s overlooking Bass Lake. For many, it is their first experience living on a lake in the woods. “I spoke with two eighth grade boys from Newark last week,” Ms. Gregory recalled. “I asked them what they liked best about the week, and their answers were surprising, but gratifying. Both of them said kayaking was the best, but one said he also loved literacy and STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math].”

The kids spend three hours a day on those two topics as well as project-based STEAM work, which also includes arts. Three more hours are devoted to leadership, team-building, and problem-solving. Part of the curriculum involves a climbing wall, raft-building, music, poetry, and environmental education, among other topics. There is ample time, too, for swimming, canoeing, and different recreational activities.

Participants are divided into groups of 10 to 12 and paired with a facilitator and a teacher or chaperone they know. That takes care of any possibilities of homesickness. “The kids grow to love it once they let their guard down,” said Ms. Gregory. “They really are understanding that learning can be fun, and that’s the idea. They say they want to stay another week.”

A group of Princeton University undergraduates and alumni founded the Princeton Summer Camp in 1908. Their goal was to make a difference in the lives of disadvantaged children by offering healthy and character-building camping experiences. The campus eventually grew to its current 264 acres. In 1930, it was purchased and managed by University undergraduates.

The site was winterized in 1973, and staff began to provide urban youth with experiential education. Undergraduates still help during the summer and on the “Campus Expeditions” program that brings kids to the University campus. The PBC has also expanded its programming into urban schools. The program is now year-round.

Students pay nothing to take part in PBC programs. All of the funds that support it are raised from foundations. A fall fundraiser and golf outing, “Soiree Under the Stars,” is set for Friday, September 30.

Among the goals of the Summer Bridge Program are self awareness, self confidence, and self esteem. Leadership qualities, a willingness to try new things, decision-making, and developing group norms are also part of the mix. Each session begins and ends with a campfire circle, the latter to celebrate the students’ accomplishments during the week.

“It is very empowering to the kids as a group, but also to them as individuals,” Ms. Gregory said. “These kinds of programs are so important, because they create leaders. We have to do a better job of letting people know about them.”