City youth club offers virtual summer camp


Alyse Beauchemin

Mason Wood
“The presenter is the icing on the cake or the enhancer of the activity of the day, which is always, ‘You hear something, you do something, you reflect on something.’ Education 101. The more senses you involve with the kids, the more learning that goes on, the more engagement.” — Cookie Steponaitis

VERGENNES — Cartooning. Firefighting. Painting. Helicopter tours. Writing. Birds of prey. Scuba diving.

Those presentations and more are beaming onto youths’ computer screens around Vergennes and beyond this summer, courtesy of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes.

And the programming is offered free of charge to any youth interested, including to members of other Boys & Girls Clubs around the state. So far three members of the Barre club have signed on.

Faced with the tough choice in May of following COVID-19 guidelines that then would allow only 10 youths at a time into the club’s Armory Lane headquarters — a choice that would have required extra spending on personnel and disinfection — or offering six weeks of daily virtual programming, the club’s board opted for the latter.

Club Interim Director Cookie Steponaitis said she believes it was the right decision, and that attendees — the club has funding to make sure all have the necessary devices — have enjoyed the programming.

“This was the more efficient way to stay open and reach more kids, plus it lessened the anxiety for the children and for the parents, and they’re in their own homes. Is it ideal? No, of course,” Steponaitis said. “It’s still the desired goal to be face-to-face.”

To ensure quality Steponaitis had the club’s summer program operators follow the teaching template from her other employer, Castleton University, where she mentors student teachers.

“The presenter is the icing on the cake or the enhancer of the activity of the day, which is always, ‘You hear something, you do something, you reflect on something.’ Education 101. The more senses you involve with the kids, the more learning that goes on, the more engagement,” she said. “You’re going to plan your lesson, or your activity, based on these best practices.” 

The club is producing a wide variety of programming using the expertise of Steponaitis, a former Vergennes Union High School social studies teacher; AmeriCorps volunteer Steven Maluenda, who soon will be club programming director; summer interns Alyse Beauchemin and Mason Wood; and a host of volunteers.

Most of the daily Zoom sessions, scheduled for 10 a.m. and for 75 minutes, include guests who sign up for half-hour presentations on their specialties.

Daily attendance in the first two weeks ranged from seven to 25. Between 18 and 20 youths have signed up for at least one session in each of the remaining four weeks. Some sessions are for all ages, while some are reserved for teens. Those interested may sign up in advance on a weekly basis at bgcvergennes.org.

Presenters had by the end of this past week included two VUHS graduates, Oscar-winning Pixar animator Jeff Pidgeon and poet/musician Alexandria Hall, as well as local artist Jackie Rivers. All led well-attended programs.

Steponaitis and Maluenda praised all the presenters, and noted Pidgeon stayed online and chatted with attendees for more than two hours.

How did they snag Pidgeon for the program?

“Cookie,” Beauchemin said. “She knows everyone.”

As important as the quality of presenters — and it’s also hard to argue with a hawk, falcon and owl from the Vermont Institute of Natural Science — club officials said the hands-on element of the sessions is at least as vital.

While Wood, an elementary education major at Castleton, handles technical challenges and shoots YouTube videos for sessions, Beauchemin, a political studies and history major at Bryant University, finds, gathers and sorts materials for parents and guardians to pick up for attendees.

For example, when Rivers presented, Steponaitis said the club handed out art supplies.

“We gave them enough paint that they can paint for three to six months. We try to not only offer this fun thing to do for one day, but to integrate this kind of activity and curiosity into their lives, especially if they’re home more,” she said.

Maluenda said club staff members quickly learned the more attendees did interactively, the better.

“Creativity is something that they can let loose and enjoy and run with on their own as well, but at the same time get a step-by-step process on how to actually do something,” he said.

Also, importantly, Maluenda said, the sessions do create human contact. At the end of one program last week one attendee performed card tricks, while another had Maluenda and Beauchemin joining in a shell game with three red solo cups.

“As much as we have this complete week of activities, we are in strange time, too, where you’re not going to have much interaction,” Maluenda said.

“So just to give these kids the opportunity and freedom just to hop on with other kids they may not necessarily know, but just to be able to talk and interact. A lot of these kids are going through the same thing. So to be able to have that, I think it’s honestly the biggest aspect we hope these kids get out of these six weeks, to be able to do something different, to be able to share what their thoughts are, share what their creations are with the other kids. I think that’s a huge plus.”

Each week of offerings center on a theme. The first week was Animal Week, and the second was Creativity Week. This week is Adventure Week, with a town-by-town scavenger hunt, a wildlife photographer, three firefighters, a helicopter tour of Mount Mansfield, and a silks performance by dancer and VUHS graduate Theo Spencer,

Next up is Career Week, with a Navy pilot engineer, biologists, a charter fishing boat owner, a laser eye surgeon, an expert on Champ the supposed sea monster in the lake, and an antique technology collector whose session will bring bingo (campers will be asked to match antique tools to their modern counterparts). Wood’s video on Richmond’s “Dr. Electricity” also awaits campers.

With COVID looming, both Steponaitis and Maluenda said they believe online programming will be on their and other clubs’ menus moving forward.

“I don’t see our virtual side going away,” Maluenda said. “I think it’s a fun, different kind of resource that we can use to engage with our kids. We do have ideas of a fall reopening plan, but nothing is set in stone yet. So part of that will be a possible in-house, but also Zoom sessions with kids. So I think that is a thing we can carry forward, because we do have the resources.”

Of course, some things right now just aren’t the same.

“We’d like to reach out and give them a big hug,” Steponaitis said. “But we couldn’t do that even if they were right in front of us.”

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