Diocese of Lexington’s long-running Reading Camp mentors students online in pandemic with UTO’s help

By David Paulsen
Posted May 17, 2021

[Episcopal News Service] The Diocese of Lexington’s Reading Camp ministry has grown and evolved over two decades, while maintaining its core mission of serving elementary school students in eastern and central Kentucky who have fallen behind in reading. Last summer, however, all in-person day camps were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, and organizers scrambled to distribute reading materials to participating students so they weren’t left without any literacy support.

A year later, the diocese again canceled the in-person summer camps it oversees, but this time, students will be invited to participate in a virtual Reading Camp, a modified program that is receiving a $12,000 grant from The Episcopal Church’s United Thank Offering.

Reading Camp

Brook Crenshaw, a volunteer with the Diocese of Lexington’s Reading Camp, leads on online session of the ministry’s after-school program. Reading Camp’s summer day camps have moved online as well, though the ministry is still working to put books in the hands of students who have fallen behind in their reading. Photo: Reading Camp

Reading Camp’s volunteer teachers already have been gaining experience with virtual mentoring through the online sessions that they are leading during the school year as a substitute for the in-person after-school program. This summer’s Reading Camp builds on those efforts, with additional online activities and a backpack full of books for each camper.

The summer camps are hosted by participating Episcopal congregations. Some run their own programs based on the guidebook produced each year by Reading Camp. Sarah Watts, the program’s executive director and a teacher by training, leads three of the camps herself at the host churches.

The public schools in the churches’ communities identify students who meet the program’s criteria and would benefit from participation. The students are entering third, fourth or fifth grade in the fall but have fallen at least a year behind in their reading. Often this is because English is their second language or they suffer from learning disabilities, Watts said.

“The kids come with a lot of needs,” she said. “I really want to focus on the kids who need the most help.” The potential pool of candidates is large. The diocese cites statistics showing 65% of Kentucky fourth graders aren’t proficient in reading, and those deficiencies are found both in urban and rural areas of the diocese.

The diocese first launched Reading Camp in 2002 under the leadership of then-Bishop Stacy Sauls to address low literacy levels in the state. It started as a weeklong overnight camp at the diocese’s camp and conference center, and it later shifted to day camps hosted by various churches during the summer. A monthly after-school program also was added during the school year. Participation is free.

Reading Camp received financial support from The Episcopal Church in two earlier rounds of UTO grants, in 2004 and 2009. It also has received several Jubilee Ministry grants, as well as a Roanridge Trust Award in 2014.

Each camp welcomes up to 30 students, with the churches providing transportation to and from. Most are from low-income families, and few have any prior connection to the churches. About 20 volunteers help out, many of them retired teachers, which allows for small-group learning. The reading instruction takes place before lunch, and camp-type activities are scheduled for the afternoons, such as hikes and field trips.

Once a student is invited to attend the summer camp, that invitation is extended again in subsequent years, until the student ages out of the program or improves to grade-level reading – “which is the goal, and very exciting,” Watts said.

Watts, who works part time, is Reading Camp’s only year-round employee, and she hires a part-time assistant for the summer months. Part of the salaries are paid by the diocese, with the rest covered by local foundations and the proceeds from various fundraising events.

This year, the host churches are St. John’s Episcopal Church in Versailles, Church of the Ascension in Frankfort, Church of the Resurrection in Nicholasville and St. John’s Episcopal Church in Corbin. The diocese also hosts one camp at its Lexington offices that is closely connected with several congregations in that city, the state’s second largest.

The church in Corbin had signed on to host its first Reading Camp in 2020 when the surge in COVID-19 cases that spring forced cancellations. That congregation is now looking forward to coaching students in their reading through the online sessions this summer, Watts said.

Although the diocese is emphasizing its virtual Reading Camp, one of its churches, St. John’s in Versailles, is planning to resume offering an in-person camp this summer. The congregation has organized its own camp for about 15 years, and St. John’s camp director Sara Meekins has volunteered with the diocese’s Reading Camp program since its first year.

“Everything we do with Reading Camp is to make it entertaining, engaging, fun and on their reading level,” Meekins told ENS. “It’s challenging them to move from that level on into the next level, but not challenging them to try to tackle something that’s so hard they can’t get any meaning out if it. And that has been very successful for us. These kids are indeed progressing in their reading levels.”

In applying for its UTO grant for its virtual project, the diocese set goals of 75% of participants improving their reading proficiency and 90% showing a positive attitude toward reading when the program concludes.

Part of the new $12,000 UTO grant will help maintain Watts’ salary, making up for a decline in foundation giving and fundraising during the pandemic. The UTO money also will cover a Zoom subscription and will pay for five books and teaching supplies for each of the summer program’s 100 or so participants. That is a one-time cost, Watts said, because when all camps return to in-person meetings, it will be easier to share materials among students and teachers.

Other organizations also have stepped up their support this year. The Orphan Society of Lexington is covering the cost of craft supplies, and the high-quality backpacks that will be given to all campers are sponsored by the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels.

The virtual Reading Camp will span seven weeks, with campers meeting online in small groups of about five with a volunteer helping with reading skills as well as craft projects. In addition to literacy skills, the sessions will focus on building self-confidence and social and emotional wellness.

The UTO grant will provide welcome support for the virtual Reading Camp at a difficult time, the Rev. Elise Johnstone, Lexington’s canon to the ordinary, told ENS by email. “It will allow us to continue the faithful work of working with kids to help bring them to their grade reading level in a safe way as we shift in the pandemic. Reading Camp helps kids to know that they are important, respected and valued.”

As Watts finalizes plans for the virtual Reading Camp, COVID-19 cases are on the decline nationwide and an average of 2 million Americans are receiving vaccination doses each day. About 44% of Kentuckians have received at least one dose, according to data tracked by the New York Times.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced May 13 that it no longer recommends that vaccinated adults wear masks indoors or outdoors, though face masks still are urged for those who haven’t received vaccinations. Children younger than 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccinations.

The coronavirus’ spread appears to be slowing in Kentucky, though reports of new COVID-19 cases there have continued to average about 400 to 600 a day for the past several weeks. Reading Camp likely will return fully to in-person sessions next summer, as congregations this year find various ways to serve students safely during the pandemic.

“I’m really excited that we’ve still found a way to really connect with kids,” said Watts, who has served as director for the past six years. “For the size of our diocese, I think it’s pretty incredible that we’ve kept something like this going for so long.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.