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Something Common: Camp produces ‘color-blind’ relationships

EUTAW — Alexis Myers couldn’t stop laughing at Nicholas Wilson. Poor Nicholas had to lay flat on the floor while a science teacher stacked gallons of milk on his chest.

Just down the hall at Carver Elementary School, Mary Madison Taylor and Kimberly Warren quivered at the thought of eating gelatin and bottled cheese in the shape of an octopus.

The scenes of this educational camp in Eutaw seemed exciting enough. Chalking up the science projects and ocean-life snacks to interesting instruction, however, would sorely understate what one visitor described Thursday as a “very important social experiment.”

In the midst of their awkward science project, Alexis and Nicholas never looked at each other through the racial sunglasses of society. One was black and the other white, but skin color had nothing to do with the laws of physics displayed in the science project.

Mary Madison and Kimberly — the former’s skin a shade lighter — both had a hard time eating something so blue, and race mattered little when it came to learning how an octopus swims.

“It would be great if we could get something like this replicated in other areas of the region,” said Lukata Mjumbe, a policy director for U.S. Rep. Artur Davis. “This is an important social experiment, and the results should be a clue to anyone who sees what’s going on that black and white children can, and should, learn together.”

That’s exactly what has happened in Eutaw since 1995, when a black mother and a white mother decided to get their kids together for a summer camp.

“We didn’t know what we were doing back then,” said Phillis Belcher, who helped begin the summer camp. “We tried everything at first — foreign language, golf lessons, math, science — I mean everything.”

The purpose of the camp, now focused on science, math and reading, was to provide an exciting educational outlet for children during the summer. More importantly, black and white children from the public schools and Warrior Academy needed to develop relationships.

“Diversity reflects real life,” said Bill Johnson, president of the Alabama Power Foundation. “The strength of a community is the value and appreciation people have for each other, no matter what they look like. In a program like this, where the kids are young, they learn to live and work with each other.”

Johnson, in large part, was the reason for a Thursday visit to the education camp. And the education camp, in large part, can be credited to Johnson and the Alabama Power Foundation.

For at least six years, the Foundation has donated $10,000 to the camp to ensure its continued success.

“I had heard about this from some of our people who work here, and I wanted to see it first-hand,” Johnson said. “It’s just a terrific program. The teachers and staff are so energetic, and being able to donate money to this makes us feel good about [the funding].”

The Alabama Power Foundation, according to Johnson, plays an active role in the advancement of education and the environment.

“The purpose is to improve the lives of Alabamians,” he said. “We get involved with things that strengthen our communities.”

No one understands the need for community strength better than Eutaw Mayor Raymond Steele.

“This is probably one of the most positive things this city is doing,” Steele said while touring one of the classrooms. “This is going to have a life-long impact on these children, and they’ll never forget the relationships they make inside this room.”

Norma Kent, a student from Eutaw Primary, has attended the camp for two years. She’s proof-positive of Steele’s perception.

“Mostly, I like the painting and working on the crossword puzzles,” Norma said just before getting in line for lunch. “I like meeting new friends, too.”

Asked if she already knew most of the children at the camp, Norma shook her head.

“Most of them I didn’t know,” she shrugged.

Exactly.

“Yes, this is a fun, hands-on learning experience for the children, but this is a very important thing that’s happening with these children,” said Dr. Karen Gardiner, the assistant director for the freshman English program at the University of Alabama. “Along with the students, we’ve got a racially diverse staff that runs the program.”

Gardiner, who led visitors into each classroom Thursday, has worked the camp each year. She’s one of the few repeat teachers, though.

“We rotate teachers each year because we don’t want the same old program,” said Belcher, who heads the Greene County Industrial Board.

This year, the “Under the Sea” camp brought local teachers from Eutaw and even one from Meridian, Miss.

Joe Coxwell, who teaches high school physics to juniors and seniors, spent most of his day imploding Sprite cans in a bucket of cold water.

“Joey taught my sister, and got her in the Odyssey of the Minds program,” Belcher said. “Getting someone like him to work with the children has been exciting.”

The ability to get Coxwell and other local teachers has hinged on a local commitment to the camp. Along with the Alabama Power Foundation, a handful of anonymous Eutaw contributors pump more than $11,000 into the camp annually.

That money, according to Belcher, funds the supplies, teachers, class aids and food for the campers. And even with the money, participants still pay $50 to attend the two-week program.

“We do offer some scholarships, but every parent who brings a child has to sign a campus contract,” Belcher said. “In that contract, parents are required to spend time volunteering at the camp.”

For such a successful program, it’s unthinkable that parents wouldn’t want to spend at least a day watching their children form uncommon relationships in Greene County.

“I cannot tell you what these children are thinking or feeling, but I can tell you there is no difference here between them,” Steele said. “These children are learning together, and race really doesn’t matter.”