Camp Seymour, one of the oldest YMCA camps in the country since its start in 1905, is more than just a summer camp. During the year it also provides schools with half-week trips for students to learn environmental science and teamwork.
“We mainly serve a lot of fifth-graders,” John Gjertson, the camp’s senior outdoor and environmental education director, said. “But we serve classes from all grades, from first grade to high school in all weather.”
Gjertson said the half-week education trips are an important part of Camp Seymour’s education programming and offered throughout Pierce and parts of King County. Gjertson said the camp is open to all and is able to serve a lot of low-income students with the help of grants, such as a recent one from Gig Harbor-based The Russell Family Foundation.
The Russell Family Foundation announced April 18 it gave away 25 grants totaling $542,000 to South Sound area nonprofits and educational programs to help support environmental education. Camp Seymour received $25,000 from the foundation.
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“We have been receiving this grant for three years,” Gjertson.
“The grant is to make sure we provide access to children to have outdoor, environmental learning,” said Fabiola Greenwalt, program officer at The Russell Family Foundation. “Camp Seymour is providing scholarship for kids who could not otherwise afford to go to camp. This helps students be able to be part of that experience.”
The foundation started 20 years ago and focuses on education to help preserve natural resources. Since it was established in 1999, the foundation has given away approximately $130 million in grants, supporting more than 675 community groups and individuals.
“They want to make sure they make investments in the preservation and conservation of the natural resources in the area,” Greenwalt said.
Gjertson said 100 percent of the grant funds received from the foundation are used as scholarships for schools looking to attend the popular half-week camps.
“Last year we served 124 schools,” Gjertson said. “We gave $25,000 to 14 low-income schools.”
The schools that received scholarships include schools from Tacoma, Kent and the Key Peninsula. Camp Seymour includes three main programs throughout the year; A traditional weeklong summer camp for students, weekend programs and the school-year camps where teachers, parents and students come for three days and nights to Camp Seymour to learn about environmental science.
Gjertson said without the scholarship funds provided by grants , many low-income students would not receive the opportunity to attend camp.
“We had one school who had 90 percent of it’s families on free or reduced lunch,” Gjertson said. “They had a healthy population of homeless students. They called us to say they were going to cancel their trip because they just couldn’t afford it. Luckily we were able to get them a scholarship.
“I think we would still serve a lot of schools without grant help. But it would be mainly wealthier schools. Our mission though is to have programs for all.”
The half-week campouts are so popular at Camp Seymour that they are offered during the entire school year, September to June, and many schools choose to come in the middle of winter to have a chance to attend the program. The program sees a 95 percent retention rate among schools coming back year after year.
“The waitlist is long,” Gjertson said.
Greenwalt said the foundation enjoys providing funds for these students because it benefits students and the community.
“It helps them understand what ecosystem is in their backyard,” Greenwalt said. “Students learn how they can help their environment and how to change their habits at home by learning how students impact the environment. It’s important for them.”