ProYouth expands from afterschool program to all-day camp

Nonprofit known for Heart afterschool program now offers day camp for distance learning students from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

TULARE COUNTY – As school districts open their campuses to children while operating as day camps, the original Tulare County day camp has found innovative ways to supervise children for the entire work day even while they are distance learning.

ProYouth was founded over 25 years ago to provide Visalia students with a safe place to be after school where they could expand their learning, get help with homework, participate in art and socialize with other students. Today, ProYouth’s mission hasn’t changed, but instead of protecting children from drugs and gangs it is now protecting students from depression and neglect.

The nonprofit enrichment program has reinvented itself in the pandemic to help students transition into distance learning while their parents are at work. Known for its afterschool programs under various names (HEART for elementary school, Edge for middle school and XL for high school), ProYouth now offers a full-day of programming predicated on assisting students with their distance learning.

“We know how to do programs and we know how to do camp. ProYouth has been around for almost 30 years,” ProYouth executive director Marie Pinto said. “We also know our parents are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They have to work and their kids are at home trying to do distance learning. We want to be a service to help our students be successful in school and for our parents to know their kids are in a safe place.”

The nonprofit is holding day camps at school and church campuses across Tulare County and one in Monterey County. Pinto said day campus are operating on-campus at Exeter Unified School District, Oak Valley School District west of Tulare and King City School District in Monterey County. In Visalia and Strathmore, day camps are being held at churches, including Visalia Nazarene, St. Paul’s Apostolic Church and New Beginnings at Heart of the Valley in Visalia and First Baptist Church in Strathmore.

Pinto said her organization recently signed agreements to open day camps at churches in Ivanhoe, to serve students at both Ivanhoe Elementary and Elbow Creek Elementary, and in Goshen. These are expected to open either next week or the week of Labor Day. In all, Heart will be operating 10 sites in Tulare County.

“So far so good. It’s a logistical thing and we have started to settle in after doing this for a week,” Pinto said.

Operating under the Day Camp guidance, Pinto said students are collected into groups of 10 with special care to include siblings in different grade levels within the same cohort. While there is no guideline specifically identifying a maximum number of 10 students to a group, Pinto said 10 is a good number for social distancing in classrooms and a manageable number for one adult to supervise.

“Tulare County HHSA, worked closely with and there are no groups larger than 10 per the county,” Pinto said.

On a typical day, drop off begins at 7:45 a.m. with students lining up six feet apart to enter the building where Heart staff do a quick health screening including a temperature reading and a few questions to determine if the student is showing ing signs of symptoms related to COVID-19. Parents can stay with their child while they are waiting in line to enter but cannot enter the building. No visitors, other than Heart staff and students, are allowed in the building as part of the day camp protocol.

“Kids eat lunch in the classroom and have a rotating schedule for outside breaks, bathroom breaks. We don’t intermingle the kids,” Pinto said. “There is a stringent schedule so there is no intermingling of kids.”

Children also don’t share devices or school supplies. While most children have district-issued Chromebooks or iPads, Heart also prepackaged school kits with notepads, paper, pencils, pens and crayons labeled with a child’s name and only that child is allowed to use that supply kit.

“No one is sharing or mixing their supplies or anything like that,” Pinto said.

Students in grades 3 and older are required to wear face masks except during snack breaks and lunch or if they have an exemption from a physician. Custodial staff will be sanitizing and cleaning door knobs, bathrooms and water fountains and entire classrooms at the end of each day. Pinto said some facilities agreed to provide custodial services for a fee, school sites have their own staff and other sites required ProYouth to contract for its own janitorial services.

Visalia Unified day camps start with AM schedule students getting logged onto their classroom Zoom meetings while PM schedule students work offline on assignments and then switch after lunch. Pinto said this allows students to meet online with teachers without overloading the bandwidth capacity at the site. While most of the sites already had wifi, Pinto said HEART did purchase wifi hotspots to boost the signal in rural areas like Strathmore or in basements that have been converted to classroom space.

“The smallest site has 30 kids so we need enough capacity to have half that many online at any given time,” Pinto said.

From 3 to 6 p.m., Heart reverts back to its enrichment activities commonly seen in classrooms and cafeterias across the district. These activities center around Heart’s main afterschool programming of art, agriculture, computer science and health science.

Entire school sites are assigned a Heart location, such as all Riverway Elementary students attending the day camp at St. Paul’s, to keep siblings and cohorts together. Pinto said this was intentional to allow for a smoother transition when students return to in-person instruction and will have to be bused between the school site and the day camp.

“Anymore than that could be chaotic,” Pinto said.

As of Monday, Heart had received applications for 330 kids and a waiting list of 130 kids in Tulare and Monterey County. That number does not include day camps in Ivanhoe and Goshen that have not yet begun. Pinto said she has already identified a fourth site in Visalia, which would drastically reduce the waiting list, but Heart is still in negotiations with the new facility.

In order to accommodate expanding its program from four hours after school to an 11-hour day, Pinto said Heart has tripled the number of positions providing two staff members per room per day, one person for the first six hours and another for five in the afternoon and evening. The organization now has over 300 employees and is looking to hire more. Anyone interested, can go to proyouthexpandedlearning.org and scroll to the bottom and click the “Tulare County” button in the “Enjoy where you work” section. The link will take you to EdJoin.org where you can apply for open positions. Even after schools reopen, Pinto said Heart won’t be scaling back because they will still be providing an 11-hour program to accommodate Visalia Unified’s AM/PM schedule.

“We are feverishly recruiting and always looking for good people,” Pinto said.

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