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'I See So Much Of A Difference:' Free FIU Summer Camp Reaches Underserved Liberty City Families

Lily Oppenheimer
Counselors from the FIU Summer Academy at the Center for Children and Families work with Liberty City kids on emotional, social and behavioral development in the Thena Crowder Early Childhood Diagnostic Center on Wednesday, July 25, 2018.

During a Liberty City summer camp in Thena Crowder Early Childhood and Diagnostic Center, 15 pre-Kindergarten children lined up for a game: Red Light, Green Light, Safari.

The point of the game, according to Bridget Poznanski, a clinical supervisor with Florida International University, is so they can regulate their own behavior when it’s time to pay attention in a classroom.

The counselor prepared to call out the first animal - suddenly the tumbling and wiggling stopped. Every toddler was completely focused.

“Green light, elephant!”

They charged forwards, holding arms up to mimic elephant trunks.

“Red light, monkey!”

Anyone who didn’t immediately screech to a stop lost their spot and regretfully made their way back to a carpet square.

Credit Lily Oppenheimer / WLRN
Kids play "Red Light, Green Light, Safari" at the FIU Summer Academy in Liberty City on Wednesday, July 25, 2018.

This is the third year of the Summer Academy in Liberty City, a seven-week comprehensive school readiness program adapted from the nationally acclaimed Summer Treatment Program (STP). Designed for children with moderate to severe learning and behavioral difficulties, it also addresses emotional development and mental health awareness between parents and the children. The program is funded by a grant from The Children’s Trust and hosted by the FIU Summer Academy at the Center for Children and Families.

Poznanski said this is the last year of the grant, but the group is re-applying this October.

Before this year’s camp, there were more than 200 families on her recruitment list. Now the program can only provide for 41 of those families and 43 kids in an area that is traditionally underserved.

She said that 91 percent of families participating live in urban poverty, and it’s necessary that these early intervention programs help prevent behavior and learning difficulties.

“There is still a problem with access to care, access to mental health, education and behavioral health services for these families,” Poznanski said. “There’s a lot of different barriers that these parents and these communities are facing that make it hard to even participate in a program like this and get their child to camp every day.”

Parents also have mandatory weekly classes to manage challenging behaviors at home and learn skills taught to their children in the program.

Robin McKnight’s 5-year-old son, Lorenzo, is almost done with camp. The pair live in Liberty City’s Edison Towers, a place she said many people call the projects.

She said she’s raising awareness of the program in her community and passing information on to other parents.

Credit Lily Oppenheimer / WLRN
Robin McKnight sits with her son, Lorenzo, attending the FIU Summer Academy on Thursday, July 26, 2018.

“This program is giving him a headstart, a jumpstart,” she said. “I see so much of a difference in his growing, not only school but learning how to control his anger, and learning to ask for things in a proper format.”

Poznanski said in the beginning, parents were a bit skeptical and didn’t always want to attend parent training sessions. Now they’re coming, participating and really expressing improvements they’ve seen with kids at home.

“Their children are speaking a lot more and more clearly. They’re listening, they’re calming down, they’re a bit more regulated when they get upset,” she said. “Some of the kids are here for major learning concerns and were significantly below grade level at the start of the program. These kids were having difficulties counting, recognizing letters, recognizing numbers.”

Now the counselors are seeing improvements every day. Poznanski said each classroom has a certified teacher, a lead behavioral specialist and  supporting counselors.

“That way we’re able to give extra intensive support to hopefully get them ready for transition in the fall,” she said.