Tuesday, July 11, 2000

Kids hurt by adult mistakes

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — Ten boys from the projects almost didn't make it to camp this summer. Blame it on camp officials who worried too much about their backgrounds and not enough about their feelings.

        The boys live in or around the Jacob Price housing complex in Covington. They are good kids in tough surroundings. One boy's family was evicted this summer. Another stays inside all the time because he thinks neighborhood thugs are out to “assassinate” him. He is 13.

        Jan Ising, who knows the boys through her job at First District Elementary School, set up a trip to Camp Carlisle, a 4-H camp run by the University of Kentucky. It's about 90 minutes from Covington in Carlisle, Ky.

        Ms. Ising bought supplies for the boys, nearly all of whom had never been camping before. They got their first backpacks and sleeping bags.

        On the morning of June 26, they arrived at the Latonia Kroger. Several hundred other kids also were in the parking lot, waiting for buses to arrive.

        This is when the boys' trouble began.

        Camp Carlisle is run by UK extension agents and the volunteers they recruit.The Covington boys had been asked to bring their own adult volunteer. This is because groups of “at-risk” kids are better off camping with someone who understands them, says Charlene Jacobs, program director with UK's College of Agriculture.

        Besides, UK has enough trouble finding camp volunteers. It's not unfair to ask certain groups to bring their own, she says.

        Ms. Ising was aware of the requirement. After many phone calls, she recruited the stepfather of one of the kids.

        At the last minute, he had to drop out. Because of miscommunication, the agents were expecting him to show up. When he didn't, officials told the boys they couldn't go.

        There they sat on the baking pavement, watching other campers board the buses. One agent even waved at the group as the buses pulled away.

        Ms. Ising was furious.

        She is white. Nine of the 10 boys are African-American. One of them commented, “Now you're experiencing what we experience sometimes.”

        Last week, Ms. Ising and I visited Jacob Price to talk with three of the youths.

        “I was shocked,” recalled Mark Reed, a tall, bespectacled seventh-grader. “We're just sitting there, with all these buses going by. I was embarrassed.”

        The good news is that Ms. Ising wouldn't give up. That day, the kids went back to Jacob Price while she made phone calls.

        A football coach at Holmes High School offered, on the spot, to take the boys to the camp. The school district agreed to pay him a week's salary. And a member of Hickory Grove Baptist Church in Taylor Mill offered its van.

        Several hours later, the boys arrived at Camp Carlisle, where they were a distinct minority among hundreds of white campers. They had a great time.

        Josh Pillow's favorite activity was square dancing. His only complaint was that the football coach, Tommy Acklin, borrowed his flashlight at night and ran down the batteries.

        “He was reading the Bible, I think,” Mark Reed says.

        Here's the irony: Three days after the group arrived, Mr. Acklin was asked to leave at 1 a.m. after an incident in which he restrained an out-of-control teen-ager employed by the camp.

        Although witnesses backed up Mr. Acklin's account of the incident, camp officials decided both he and the teen-age counselor should go home.

        The Covington boys ended up with an unfamiliar adult in their cabin. Even Ms. Jacobs was impressed by their behavior.

        “The kids were just wonderful kids,” she says. “They had a great time. They were so mannerly.”

        But she won't change the policy that such children bring an adult from their world.

        This infuriates me. Children respond well when treated with fairness and respect. It's wrong to assume “at-risk” kids are different from others and to burden them with special requirements.

        It's especially wrong to leave them in a parking lot, feeling like losers, because adults screwed up.

        Karen Samples can be reached at 578-5584 or ksamples@enquirer.com.