Akayla Wolcott grew up in Burien’s recreation programs. At age 16, she started working for the City of Burien, leading summer camps and afterschool programs.
“I had such a fantastic experience with the staff here,” said Wolcott. “The staff were such positive role models for me. It was really awesome to grow up in the program, and then be on the inside of it.”
Now, she’s running a new program that offers a summer camp experience for kids in Burien who may not have had the opportunity to experience an outdoor summer camp, or even experience recreation outdoors.
Burien’s Outdoor Explorers program, funded by the “No Child Left Inside” state grant program, provided eight weeks of free summer camp experience for 58 middle schoolers in Seahurst Park this past summer. Working with partners such as the Environmental Science Center, YETI, and Alki Kayak, the all-day camp program provided a mix of environmental education, team building, and outdoor recreation skill building.
Kids, parents, and staff find rewards
It was a meaningful experience for both the kids and their parents.
“We heard from parents when they got their kid back at the end of the day, they wouldn’t stop talking about camp,” said Wolcott. “Their bodies were so tired, they had to take a nap. But they would talk all night about how fun camp was.”
Staff recreation leaders also found it rewarding. The nine recreation leaders who led the camp each week all grew up in Burien. Many of them were either current or former students of the Waskowitz Environmental Leadership School (WELS) and had many of the same life experiences of the campers. Five of the recreation leaders were current WELS students who were paid through the City’s summer internship program. They were trained by WELS staff on how to run activities for students at an outdoor recreation and environmental education camp.
The staff had the opportunity to learn from Kevin O’Malley of the South Sound Nature School. He guided the staff through a two-day training on the natural history and current use of Seahurst Park. He covered the importance of nature camp routines, emergent curriculum in nature, location and timing for instruction versus play, troubleshooting difficult situations, safety, and the ethics of leaving no trace.
“He took us through the “portal”, this big tube that goes under the upper parking lot gate,” said Wolcott. “He told us the portal leads to a magical place. We had a really good time as staff trudging along. But then you do it with kids … watch them go underground and then go back up. That was the real magic.”
Each week, the Environmental Science Center led the campers through a mix of environmental science activities like cracking open geodes or dissecting a squid. They discovered bird watching and learned about local plants and environmental restoration. The campers had the opportunity to visit other parks like Dash Point State Park and Saltwater State Park. Alki Kayak taught both the campers and staff how to kayak. For both campers and staff, it was their first time kayaking. Des Moines Food Bank provided no-cost lunches and snacks.
Zach Wenman, Recreation Coordinator, manages youth programs for the City of Burien.
“It was great to be able to work with these kids for such a long time,” said Wenman. “Afterschool programs are fast. When the kids get out of school, you give them a snack, help with homework, bam its done. With this camp, you can really learn and grow with the kids when you can be with them for eight hours.”
Nature inspires confidence and calm
Beyond the activities, both kids and staff gained confidence from just the physical challenge of hiking and being outside all day. A daily mindfulness exercise where kids and staff were asked to go to a “sit spot” at least five feet apart and just be still for eight minutes was challenging at first. Kids talked about being bored. But by the end of the summer, they talked about how it helped them feel more grounded and calmer.
Many of the kids in the program live in apartments along Ambaum Blvd overlooking Seahurst Park. However, many of them had never been inside the park. In post-camp interviews with the youth, staff heard many of them say they wanted to bring their friends and family to the park and introduce them to the idea of being outdoors.
“On the last the last day of camp, we saw there were kids who didn’t want to leave,” said Wenman. “They were hugging staff, taking photos on the way out. Some kids were crying. It was a very emotional day. Kids needed and respected the staff and we made them feel welcome and loved. You don’t get that kind of positive feedback often in youth development.”
Staff are already working on ways to offer this camp again next year, leveraging the relationships they’ve developed with community partners.
“Let’s not do everything ourselves,” said Wenman. “We’re a team. Let’s use the resources we have in our community.”