Lessons from Virtual Summer Camp: PRYSE Academy pt. 1

Most of the summer camps I attended or volunteered at growing up have been canceled this summer. It seemed like too great a challenge to try to engage kids at home: how were they suppose to run a STEM camp when supplies cannot be distributed, a sports camp if they cannot have scrimmages, or an theater camp if they cannot put on a show. Just as the cancellation of school has disrupted the lives of kids around the country, the cancellation of summer camps or similar programming continues to disrupt the normalcy that youth (and adults) have been craving during the age of Covid-19. The team at PRYSE Academy recognized this as well as the importance for the refugee and immigrant youth of Pittsburgh to continue to practice English, foster a sense of community, and find an outlet to express their creativity. These necessities did not have time to wait for Coronavirus, and instead of digging their heads in the sand the group at ARYSE figured out a way to make camp happen for their youth. This determination to provide every opportunity for their kids to grow and thrive is the most important strength necessary for an out-of-school educational organization or an organization that supports refugee youth to succeed in their mission of developing the next generation of leaders in our community.

ARYSE (Alliance for Refugee Youth Support and Education) is an organization dedicated to making sure that no refugee or immigrant children fall through the cracks in the education system by providing out-of-school opportunities for them to develop educationally and emotionally. PRYSE (Pittsburgh Refugee Youth Summer Enrichment) Academy is the flagship program of ARYSE, and fills a unique space within Pittsburgh. There are many organizations catering to the youth of Pittsburgh through after-school programs, athletic organizations, and dance lessons. There are also many organizations to cater to the refugee and immigrant community of Pittsburgh by providing ESL tutoring, opportunities to celebrate their heritage, and financial support. ARYSE provides programming and resources that addresses the specific needs of refugee and immigrant youth that may not be address otherwise in non-tailored programs.

Throughout my first week at PRYSE Academy, I have been exposed to a host of important skills necessary for working at an out-of-school organization. Effective communication skills are absolutely essential in order to make sure the kids understand what is going on, feel supported, and are able to have meaningful conversations that help them grow. The virtual setting of camp this year just makes this so much more important, as everybody is not in a physical classroom to monitor progress and offer assistance. The need for translators adds yet another level of complication to communication, making the ability to get one’s point across as clearly as possible crucial. This leads to the second important skill needed in this line of work- patience. Obviously patience with the new technology due to the nature of the camp this year is important. The first couple days of camp were an adjustment, as the counselors got accustomed to leading the group virtually and the kids got used to how the program was going to run. There were awkward pauses, long moments of silence, and many moments of people speaking over each other (as anyone who has done a large zoom call in the last couple months has experienced), but the patience shown by the counselors set the tone for the class, and instead of everybody getting frustrated and giving up they worked together. This patience was extended to explaining the activities of the day and collecting information from the kids, and without this patience it would have been a chaotic mess. Going off of this, the third essential skill needed to work in an out-of-school program is adaptability. Many times throughout the week, the counselors would have an activity all planned out and then introduced it to the class, which would proceed to talk it over and alter the activity. Instead of getting frustrated, the counselors embraced the opportunity let the kids take the lead in adjusting the activities to meet their needs. I also confronted similar circumstances when giving one-on-one ESL tutoring, where I would come in with a whole lesson plan for the day which basically got thrown out the window as soon as classes started. This was for the best, because the student lead sessions both addressed exactly what needed to be practiced and kept the student engaged. The humility to step back and let others take the lead is essential in this work, and leads to a beautiful collaboration that gives the youth in the program the best opportunity to thrive. These skills would be necessary in a regular setting for refugee youth, but the online nature of the program amplified the need for these attributes even more as unexpected complications arose and the challenge of engage the students increased tenfold.

The skills listed above would be important in any setting working with youth, but their are other skills that are uniquely needed working at ARYSE and therefore PRYSE Academy. One is an understanding of the cultural norms of the different countries students are from. This aids in making sure every student feels comfortable and can help make lessons more effective and fun for everybody. Another important thing is the ability to take cues from students. Some topics are very sensitive to our youth, and instead of forcing them to talk about potentially triggering things the counselors at PRYSE have made an effort to invite students to speak about something in anyway that makes them comfortable. Students may also give subtle cues that they are confused, uncomfortable, or upset but not want to say it out loud to draw attention to themselves, which is why it is important for everyone in the space to be paying close attention to address situations as they arise. This is further complicated by being online, and is a challenge not only out program but everybody in the educational field will have to address in the age of online classes.

This first week instantly displayed how important the extra efforts of the team at ARYSE had made to be able to offer this program online: every kid said they were excited to see their peers for the first time since school finished and was excited to meet new people. This spirit of hope and community has made every extra effort worth it, and I am excited to watch the program evolve over the next couple weeks.

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