PATERSON – The playground at Camp YDP in Paterson is swarming with a group of adorable 4-year-olds who are fascinated by a camera one of their caretakers is carrying. They all line up for a turn and get to look through the viewfinder and press the shutter. They are overeager but remember to shout thank you when their turn is up. Their eyes light up when they’re shown the photos they have produced.
This type of interaction is typical and highly encouraged at Camp YDP, according to director, Bria Pierre. In fact, one of their primary goals is to expose the children to experiences they might not normally participate in.
“Most of these kids live in the projects right down the block from camp. They believe that everything in life is encompassed within this five-block radius,” she said. “We want to show them a whole world of possibilities and opportunities that exist outside these five blocks.”
The camp, which serves children from age two and a half to 13-years-old, has various programs to achieve this goal. They run a full day preschool program, after-school program, and summer camp. In a city that is vastly underserved, Camp YDP strives to provide resources and a broad sense of relief to the community. While much has changed over the past 60 years that the camp has been open, this objective has remained their modus operandi.
Paterson is a unique city filled with a rich history. Unfortunately, many of its residents live below the poverty line and struggle daily. Camp YDP is not free but is goes by a shared services model. They try to keep costs to a minimum so that everybody in the community can participate. A significant portion of their resources come from donations of money as well as time. They will be holding a fundraiser luncheon on August 5 to raise funds and awareness. As much as they need funding to operate, Pierre says they need volunteers more. They want to expand their reach within the community, having locals give help and in turn receive support back. She hopes that sharing the camp’s vision with those who attend will inspire more people to get involved.
When GNJ partnered with Camp YDP in 2016, they dedicated themselves to helping the camp achieve this goal. Many of the children and even staff are second or third generation in the YDP family. In a community where everyone knows each other, the camp has always been a place they have called home. The kids come here to receive love, attention, and empowerment. The parents come to receive advice, validation and help. In fact, Pierre says she spends most of her day speaking to parents.
“This job is so much more than just organizing trips and running programs,” she said. “It’s about listening to the kids talk about their day. It’s about giving parents advice on how to handle different situations that arise. I have two children of my own at home as well. I don’t really ever stop working. But seeing the smile on kid’s face when they get to do something they wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to do, that makes it all worth it.”
One of the biggest struggles Pierre encounters is what she calls a “learned behavior of cant’s.” For example, one boy told her he could never go to college, simply because he was from Paterson. Pierre and her staff spend a lot of time explaining to the children that they are not their circumstances. Good is not an option for them. They have the ability to be great. Camp YDP gives them the experiences and opportunities to discover how.
Fortunately, in addition to partnering with GNJ, Camp also gets a lot of help from volunteers and local organizations. Volunteers from Urban League come by and help with daily chores such as meals and building maintenance. High school students from nearby cities volunteer to help with homework at the after school program. Locals from the community come by and show the kids how to do various crafts as well as teach classes. They’ve also partnered with City Green to implement their City Sprouts program where the children grow and harvest their own garden of vegetables as well as learn about the environment and gardening. Currently, Camp YDP has a small garden in their playground. They hope to expand it soon so that it is large enough to provide fresh vegetable for the whole community.
The wall behind Pierre has Camp YDP’s mission written in big sprawling letters, laying out what she and her team are vigorously working toward. It reads: “A Community Association with a Ministry to People (CAMP YDP) is an umbrella organization whose mission is to cultivate achievement and map out possibilities for the children and families of Paterson, New Jersey. We strive to work in partnership with parents, administrators, and community members to provide a haven for children and their families to grow, learn, and be empowered academically, socially and emotionally. Through our full day preschool program, after-school enrichment programs and summer camp program we encourage our children to become lifelong learners, critical thinkers, and productive members of society.”
Kamelia Ani is a freelance writer and photographer as well as a full-time journalism major at Brookdale Community College. She is most interested in telling the stories that make ordinary people extraordinary.