Arlington Rotary tradition helps kids experience nature

 
When Enrique first asked his mom if he could join his Webb Elementary School classmates at Camp Grady Spruce last December, Norma Leyva was against the idea.

The program, a five-day overnight camp sponsored by the Rotary Club of Arlington, is a long-standing tradition at the school.
 

By Faye Reeder
Special to the Citizen-Journal

When Enrique first asked his mom if he could join his Webb Elementary School classmates at Camp Grady Spruce last December, Norma Leyva was against the idea.

The program, a five-day overnight camp sponsored by the Rotary Club of Arlington, is a long-standing tradition at the school. But despite its history and Enrique's enthusiasm, Leyva was worried. Her son, a fifth-grader, is mildly autistic. He had never been away from home that long.

"We knew exactly how she was feeling, but we reassured her and encouraged her to let him go," said Maria Luna, a Webb teacher who also served as a camp counselor this year. "It's good that she gave permission, because Enrique had a wonderful time, and his mother is happy he learned how to be independent."

The Webb camping program is a signature project for the Rotary Club, a community service organization founded in 1923. "The significance of the Camp Grady experience for the students at Webb is life-changing," said Lynn Stavinoha, a club member.

"It's often the first encounter with nature that these children experience," said Stavinoha. "At camp, they ride horses and learn how to care for them. They take nature hikes and have boat-riding experiences."

Webb's student population is made up almost entirely of economically disadvantaged children, according to the Texas Education Agency. About 62 percent of students have limited English language skills.

Principal Michael Martin said the reading, math and science curriculum that is woven into the camp experience helps his students improve their performance on the state's standardized tests.

He said the district average on the fifth-grade science portion of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills is 82; Webb's students scored 92.

Scholarships

Besides the camping program, Rotary has a college scholarship program that awards $750 per semester to all students who finish sixth grade at Webb and go on to graduate from high school. According to Rotary records, the scholarship program began in 1995 and the first student to attend college on a Webb scholarship did so in fall 2002. The group has awarded 160 scholarships, and 31 students have graduated since 2002.

Stavinoha said the club launched the Camp Grady Spruce program about 15 years ago. "It's the smiles on the faces of the children while attending camp or the giggles while they are sharing their camp experiences that inspires the club members to continue the Camp Grady Spruce tradition," she said.

About 85 kids attend each year. The annual cost, which is funded by donations and fundraising, is about $8,000. The club supplies coats and jackets for any campers in need, and each child receives a backpack as he or she boards the bus for the two-hour trip that contains gloves, hand sanitizer, pencils, pads, dental products and various other supplies that might come in handy at camp.

Camp stories

Last week, the Rotary Club held its meeting in the school library, where a handful of campers and teachers who serve as camp counselors presented a program about the camp.

As club members enjoyed a delicious brisket lunch prepared by two Rotarians for the occasion, the students and teachers described the impact of the camping program.

Stephanie, a South African immigrant who formerly only spoke French, told her audience in near perfect English about her awe of the horses' size, and the boat ride to Devil's Island.

"We almost froze!" declared student Jalanna, eliciting the biggest laugh from the audience. But she eventually overcame her discomfort to learn how to make a catapult and learn survival skills.

Physical education teacher Suzy Springob presented a video collage of camp experiences including archery, horseback riding, hiking, and several memorable scenes of blindfolded students perilously making their way along a sensory trail. "The science-related activities that are experienced at Camp Grady Spruce are outstanding," she said.

As for Enrique, he said the things he learned on the sensory trail and how to use a compass will help prepare him for the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, which will replace the TAKS. As for his favorite, it was definitely the horseback riding.

"It was a really big horse!" he said. "Her name was Ginger. I just thought of her as a gingerbread man so I wouldn't be afraid."

"He made me understand that he can do things without me. When I saw he could do it, it made me feel 10 years younger -- it made me strong," said Enrique's mom, the single mother of three.

And now Enrique is looking for a way to attend a summer camp.