Summer Camp for PROMISE Teens Focuses on Career, College Readiness

July 12, 2017

Cleotha Bell of Blytheville, from left, camp director Jamie Thornton and another PROMISE participant gather for a picture.Davonta Vaughn of Texarkana, center, is pictured with camp director Jamie Thornton and Antonio Jamison, a PROMISE connector.Breanna Juarez, left, of Fort Smith and Ashlyn Campbell of Hot Springs got to know each other at summer camp.John Barbuto, PROMISE Central Arkansas regional director, encourages PROMISE campers to seek resources available to help them succeed in college.Campers learn about Arkansas higher-education institutions, job opportunities and resources available to them at a college and career fair.Carri George, an employee of UA CURRENTS, hands a hat to a student who participated in the college and career fair. George coordinated the curriculum at camp.Shawn Blasczczyk, a PROMISE connector in Lonoke County,  tells students to think about what interests them and to make a series of career goals. Keith Jackson, former NFL Pro Bowl tight end and now Razorback football color commentator, talks to PROMISE teens about pursuing their dreams.Spoken-word poet LeDerick Horne returns to camp for the second year to talk to students about navigating life. Leifel Jackson, center, poses with one of the groups of teens attending summer camp. Jackson is a former Little Rock gang member turned community activist and speaker.
Photos by Lahairoi Collins and Heidi Wells

Going to camp is the typical summer experience for millions of kids in America. For teens with disabilities participating in Arkansas PROMISE, they may have never had that opportunity until now.

Jamie Thornton is the PROMISE summer camp director. PROMISE teens range in age from 15 to 19, have been diagnosed with intellectual or physical disabilities and qualify for Supplemental Security Income. The weeklong camp is for those teens who are available because they are not doing a paid summer work experience arranged by PROMISE during the time of camp. It focuses on independent living skills.

Thornton said the talent show was one example of the comfortable atmosphere the staff and campers themselves have created. Kids who would never have considered getting up in front of a crowd of 300 people knew they can feel both safe and encouraged, he said. They sang, danced and rapped.

“Seeing the growth these kids accomplish during the week is inspiring and remarkable,” Thornton said.

Brent Thomas Williams, an associate professor of rehabilitation education and research who serves as faculty director of Arkansas PROMISE, said the PROMISE teens understood their role to support each other on stage and throughout the week’s activities. And, before camp, many did not think about college as an option for them. Getting them on campus opens their minds to opportunities, showing them they can belong, too, Williams said.

This was the second year for camp, this time at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and last time at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. This year’s camp featured a career and college fair as well as breakout sessions on career and college readiness. Other sessions covered bullying and peer pressure, healthy relationships, etiquette and expressing oneself through art. Motivational speakers opened each day’s activities that also included a pool party, dance and plenty of recreation.

Cleotha Bell of Blytheville, who will be a high school junior in the fall, said camp provided an opportunity for teens to experience a week without their parents.

“It was a different atmosphere we’re not used to,” he said. “It will help us get ready for college. We got a lot of information on how to really prepare ourselves.”

He also liked not using his cell phone during the time at camp.

“That helped me pay more attention,” he said. “I really appreciate Arkansas PROMISE. It’s a great opportunity.”

Bell said he wants to become a counselor or teacher to help others. He wants to mentor young people, to listen and show he cares.

Davonta Vaughn of Texarkana said he didn’t realize before camp that there are many options for higher education other than a four-year university. He comes from a military family and plans to enlist after graduating from high school next year and then pursuing college.

He started working for a movie theater last summer through Arkansas PROMISE and continued through the school year. Several employers around the state have kept PROMISE teens on after their summer job funded by PROMISE ended.

Ashlyn Campbell of Hot Springs and Breanna Juarez of Fort Smith were teammates at camp. Both have graduated from high school and had their PROMISE work experiences. Campbell said the people were the best thing about camp.

“Everyone was kind and welcoming,” she said. “I made friends I hope to stay in touch with.”

She worked at a funeral home, a hair salon and a day-care facility. At all three places, she improved her communication skills and working with the public, Campbell said. She wants to work with children with disabilities.

Juarez said attended camp last year, too, and said it offered more options this year. She plans to attend UAFS in the fall and major in psychology or criminal justice because she would like to be an FBI profiler. Through Arkansas PROMISE, she worked at a senior residential facility dining hall and a library. The senior facility, in particular, taught her that different approaches are necessary when working with different generations of people.

Arkansas PROMISE is funded by a $35.7 million federal grant to the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas and the Arkansas Department of Education. During the five years of the grant, 1,000 Arkansas teens who receive SSI will have two paid summer work experiences as well as additional training and intensive support services. A second group of 1,000 teens will receive only the usual services provided to teens with disabilities. Researchers will collect and analyze data from the two groups to help the federal government determine whether the PROMISE project should be used as a model for future programs.

PROMISE works with several other university-based groups and state agencies in a collaboration that has been praised by federal officials. Partners for Inclusive Communities, also based in the College of Education and Health Professions, initiated the grant proposal in 2013 with then-Gov. Mike Beebe’s office and helps administer the program.

“It was an excellent camp,” said Robin Ingram, outreach director for Partners. “The youth went home with a wonderful experience. Everyone was so excited to be there and there was great camaraderie when you realize 80 percent of these youth have never been away from home before and they come to camp knowing no one. We saw some amazing personalities coming out and everyone walked away feeling like it was a great week of accomplishments.”

UA CURRENTS is also based in the College of Education and Health Professions and has been heavily involved in the training aspect of the project. CURRENTS stands for Center for the Utilization of Rehabilitation Resources for Education, Networking, Training and Service.

“The UA CURRENTS training team’s participation in the success of PROMISE Summer Camp builds upon the year-round monthly trainings the team developed for youth and their families,” said Robin Freeman, director of CURRENTS. “Summer camp empowers our youth to develop skills that will enable them to excel in their career and higher education choices. The speakers, training sessions and team-building activities builds our youths’ confidence and independence, helps our youth to see a life of possibilities, and encourages readiness for the future.”

The camp concluded on Friday morning with a chance for several of the teens to take the mic again and talk about what they learned. One young man thanked the counselors and paraprofessionals in his group.

“They helped me be more open and talk to more people, and I really do appreciate that,” he said.

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