The Quintessential Summer: Gering Public Schools, Scottsbluff Family YMCA team up on Summer Sun, Food and Fun Day Camp

The Quintessential Summer: Gering Public Schools, Scottsbluff Family YMCA team up on Summer Sun, Food and Fun Day Camp

By Tyler Dahlgren

The need for something like Gering’s new Summer Sun, Food and Fun Day Camp has existed for awhile; a 10-week, full-day camp for elementary-aged students that blends education and fun in The Panhandle’s great outdoors.

In other words, the quintessential summer experience.

Out here, you’ll quickly learn, where there’s a need, there’s a way. There’s usually a will, too. Especially when it comes to kids.

“We recognized a significant gap, like many communities across the state, in childcare,” said GPS Director of Communications and Engagement Jennifer Sibal. “We found our parents are just really struggling for childcare, particularly from birth to fifth-grade.”

In April, the district decided to go for it. With a Summer of Youth grant and $50,000 in funding from NDE and the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation’s Beyond School Bells in hand, Gering aimed to create an innovative and adventurous summer day camp for K-5 students. 

First, though, they needed to make a call. The Scottsbluff Family YMCA picked up. Summer was just two months away, and developing and staffing the camp quickly became a race against time.

The pedal was pressed to the floor. Fortunately, two feet are heavier than one.

“This has been such a great partnership,” said Trevor Teichroeb, Associate Director of the Scottsbluff Family YMCA. “It’s good for us, and it’s good for them.”

The camp is held at Lincoln Elementary, smack dab in the heart of town. Each Friday, the 45 Bulldog campers take a field trip (correlating with that week’s theme) to somewhere in the community. NPSA visited on a Tuesday, for example, and there was already a buzz building around Friday’s trip to the bowling alley and Bird Conservancy of the Rockies had staff on hand leading campers through outdoor activities.

The partnership between GPS and the YMCA, both parties agree, just makes sense. GPS provides the facility (gym space is turning into quite the commodity), the food and the busing in the mornings and afternoons. The Y provides the childcare license, the programming and the structure. Their missions coincide.

“We have a huge heart for kids,” Teichroeb said of the Y. “So does Gering Public Schools, and I definitely believe that’s the cornerstone of this partnership. We each see a huge need and we just wanted to come together to do what’s best for kids. That’s why we’re here, to do what’s best for kids.”

That’s where this story gets really cool. When they wrote the program, Sibal explains, one of the main concerns was staffing. Actually, it was the main concern. Who was going to work the camp? They couldn’t just hire anybody, not if this camp was going to become what they’d imagined it would.

They found their answer by looking within, to the district’s education pathway and an amazing team of paraprofessionals who were excited for both the opportunity and the extra summer income. Of the six Summer Sun, Food and Fun Day Camp staffers, three are current GPS students on the education pathway and three are peer educators. That includes 2021 GPS graduate and current Chadron State student Kyla Knight, who views the camp as another important step down the career path of her dreams.

“I want to be a teacher someday, and this sounded like the perfect opportunity to gain experience and help kids in the community I grew up in,” Knight said. “I get to give back to the community that gave so much to me.”

Teichroeb marvels at the ingenuity of the inaugural Summer Sun, Food and Fun staff.

“They’re truly the innovative ones,” he said. “We have a staff meeting every Monday, and it’s so fun to see the suggestions and ideas that they come up with.”

Kids are kids, and it is summer after all, so it’s natural for them to get excited about afternoons at the swimming pool and the Friday field trips, but Knight feels the most rewarding moments are the ones in between.

“The kids all have their own personalities, and it’s fun to watch them grow and change,” she explained. “Some of the social-emotional learning we’re trying to incorporate into the curriculum comes in very naturally.”

That’s been a focus of the summer, and a focal point for soon-to-be senior and education pathway traveler Jaylei Cervantes, who like Knight hopes to become a teacher one day.

“I personally enjoy social and emotional learning,” Cervantes said. “Just to see them learn about their emotions, and to see them understand and really get something out of it, that’s really cool.”

Of course they have. With things like the Summer Olympics, carnivals and balloon fests on the docket, how could they not? Amazingly, they’re having more than a double scoop of fun while learning and growing along the way.

“We’ve tried to mirror the school day,” said Teichroeb. “Our expectations mirror what they’re used to in school. When school starts in August, they’re going to have some of those skills that they need to succeed in class. You can already see that in the program. It’s just such a good service, and it was so needed in the community.”

The funding came so late in the year that Sibal and other camp organizers were worried that summer plans would already be set in stone for the majority of GPS families. The huge registration number indicated that wasn’t the case. One major incentive was the scholarships and other funding options they offered.

“Easing that fiscal burden was a selling point for a lot of families, too,” Sibal said. “I think in order to engage families, one of the most important elements is to listen to them. We’re a community school and if we’re able to align that to the mission of our district and bring community partners to the table, then we should do what’s best for kids year-round, not just for nine months.”

That’s a special kind of sentiment in today’s day and age, a timeless one echoed by many who call this place home.

“Going to college, I missed every minute of my Gering experience,” said Knight. “I love how this culture and community embraces us, and I feel welcomed here. Welcomed by my community and all the community partners. This is where I want to be. My goal is to come back here and be a teacher because of how well my teachers at GPS helped me through my process.”

This summer’s been quite the kick for Knight, who said Summer Sun, Food and Fun has taught her more about herself and her hometown than she’d anticipated.

“I’ve been on a few cool field trips that I hadn’t ever been on in the town that I grew up in,” she said. “It’s cool to see the kids experience it, and it’s fun for me to be a part of it as well.”

In the fall, Elizabeth Lewis will be in the first grade. Today, though, her attention is on the swimming pool, where the water is always “nice and cool.” I ask her if Cervantes and Knight are on the right career paths, if they should come back to Gering after college and teach full-time.

“Definitely!” responds little Elizabeth Lewis. “Our teachers are really awesome. My favorite part of camp is being with them and my friends.”

There are relay races happening outside on the patch of grass near the playground. Oscar Hernandez takes a quick break and between deep breaths answers a few questions about his summer camp.

“I’ve learned to be respectful, and we’ve had a lot of fun too,” he smiles. “I really like my teachers. They are all really funny. It’s fun spending time with friends every day.”

After that, he’s off. He disappears through a set of gymnasium doors and into the bright June sun.

The rest of summer awaits, and Gering’s Summer Sun, Food and Fun Day Camp is just getting started.