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When a Family Can't Afford Summer

'Poverty knows no season'


While many American families anticipate a summer filled with camping trips, visits to amusement parks or vacations in exotic locales, many Idaho children are part of an increasing number of U.S. families that The New York Times reports, "can't afford summer."

As The Times' KJ Dell'Antonia wrote June 5, a growing number of parents continue to find summer to be a "financial and logistical nightmare."

"Poverty knows no season," said Dalynn Kuster, multi-programs manager for Boise-based nonprofit El Ada Community Action Partnership. "There are too many families struggling who are invisible to the rest of us."

Kuster knows well how burdensome the financial strain can be on low-income families during the summer months. She spends her days helping local families get access to food, housing and assistance with utility bills. When summer comes around, Kuster said she knows without the shelter, meals and support system school provides during the fall and winter, parents are left wondering what to do with their kids from May through August. Kuster said she has seen the issues for low-income families become more and more complex over the years.

"Families are facing high rent and high barriers in providing for their children," Kuster said. "Their wages are not going up, and they are struggling to gain more job skills and education, but the cost to live and survive keeps on increasing."

When children don't have access to body- and mind-enriching programs during the summer, they often struggle with being prepared for the next school year. On average, reading skills of low-income children lapse in summer months and are frequently not regained. That said, there may be more at stake than just learning loss for kids in low-income families.

"When families don't have access to good opportunities and programs, their children begin to struggle in school and feel unsuccessful, leading them on a downward spiral of lost confidence," said Roseanne Swain, superintendent of recreation for the Boise Department of Parks and Recreation.

Treasure Valley YMCA Marketing and Communications Director Katherine Johnson said she sees more and more families every year in need of financial assistance—about one in four YMCA members and participants receive some kind of aid. For the Y's early childhood development programs—like day-care and pre-school—the numbers are even higher: it's one in three members that access financial assistance.

"The struggles facing parents today are far different than the previous generation," said Johnson. "Young adults are having children while dealing with the burdens of student loans, job competition and an increased cost of living." Johnson also reports seeing more and more one-parent or unmarried families, where children don't have the ability to enjoy programs like a robotics camp or art lessons.

At the Y's Horsethief Reservoir Camp, scores of kids from struggling families are scholarshipped into the overnight summer camp located in the forests near Cascade.

"And that's our goal: to have a child from a high-income neighborhood bunking with a child who is a refugee," said Johnson. "No one is turned away."

Back in Boise, the city's Parks and Recreation Department also offers scholarships for all of its programs, covering up to 100 percent of the cost. Those scholarships include programs at the Boise Zoo, Foothills Learning Center and the Boise Urban Garden Center, among others.

Swain emphasizes the importance of affordability for all members, not just low-income families.

At the El Ada Community Action Partnership, case managers do what they can they can to offer some kind of summer respite for cash-strapped families. For example, El Ada distributes thousands of free passes to the Boise Zoo each summer.

"The passes give families a break from their constant stress and allow them to enjoy a positive bonding activity together," said Kuster.

Scholarships, passes and free summer programs can change the course of a child's life. Swain shared the story of Winston, a boy she had met while working at a Boise Parks and Recreation community center. In 2008, Winston was 10 years old and growing up in poverty. With the family's limited income, "Winston was bright, but had few resources," said Swain.

However, Boise Parks and Recreation was able to provide Winston with a number of opportunities and mentored the young boy at a neighborhood community center. Ultimately, Winston became a member of the Mayor's Youth Council. After graduating high school earlier this year, Winston was accepted to Princeton University on a full-ride scholarship, beginning this fall.

"Stories like these remind me that summer programs aren't about kicking a ball around or making crafts," said Swain. "It's about helping every child to succeed and realize their full potential."

But the need is ongoing. Treasure Valley organizations say they're constantly working to meet the growing needs, with a singular goal: To give all children access to a memorable summer.

"This is what makes Boise such a beautiful community," said Swain. "We have our hearts open to the people, families and refugees who are struggling. We care about every child in the community."