The Freedom School: Dreaming Big Dreams by Rev. Sarah Colwill

Fifty urban youth from the Germantown section of Philadelphia held up their letters proudly, spelling out a message to our nation: STAND FOR CHILDREN NOT GUNS. In front of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in our nation’s capital, they were certain the helicopters flying overhead held their president, Mr. Barack Obama, and they had confidence their message was being seen. The Freedom School, a ministry of the First Presbyterian Church in Germantown, brought these youth to Washington, D.C. for a field trip to educate and empower. Executive Director Eileen Jones encouraged their excitement that day, as she cherished this highlight of their program.

The Freedom School is a seven-week summer camp housed at the church, where fifty children from the neighborhood engage in reading, swimming, educational trips, and traditional camp activities. Six years ago the church contemplated ways to enrich the lives of urban children in the area. The church has had a decades-long commitment to running a summer day camp. But they yearned for something that would take the camp to the next level. They were concerned about the declining school system and the statistics showing all children experience learning loss over the summer months. The staff decided to pursue transitioning from a typical summer camp to a Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School.

The Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School seeks to enrich youths’ lives through fostering a love of reading by offering a curriculum with books that relate to the lives of these children. As part of this program, the camp’s staff were trained to use the special curriculum to have a significant impact on their campers beyond typical day care. After three years of being an official “Freedom School,” the camp has assimilated the program without its official affiliation due to its $10,000 price tag. The past three years they have modified the camp and continued its commitment to reading and encouraging social, emotional, and academic growth.

The camp wants to serve the whole family, and realizes the needs of parents, opening its doors from 7:30 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. for working mothers and fathers. The cost of the camp is just over $60 per week, and they don’t turn children away because of financial constraints. Through avenues such as the Presbytery’s Covenant Fund Grant, they fundraise the majority of their expenses. Ms. Jones, who serves the church as Director for Urban Ministry, and her staff, seek out grants and other creative ways to provide for these youth. The camp receives breakfast, lunch, and snacks from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, where hot meals are prepared and served onsite daily. They also hold parenting workshops, with several in particular focusing on fathers and their importance in a child’s life. One workshop brought in a trauma team from Hahnemann Hospital, where a doctor and several social workers talked about the special needs of children who witness gun violence.

The Freedom School takes weekly field trips to expand the campers’ horizons, going to places such as Lancaster’s Sight and Sound Theater. They search out cross-cultural experiences to foster a positive understanding of diversity and an appreciation for different cultures. One such trip involved a visit to The National Liberty Museum along with a similar camp that is held at an Asian charter school in Center City. After touring the museum, educators came to encourage ways to break barriers that arise from being of different cultures. The camp culminates each year with a larger trip to locations such as Washington, D. C., Baltimore, and New York City.

The energy and enthusiasm for this program is evident in Ms. Jones’ voice as she talks about the church’s commitment to helping create a vibrant Germantown valuing worship, the arts, education, and the like. The church celebrates and values diversity and the camp takes seriously its commitment to instilling these values in the campers. Ms. Jones claims, “I’m honored and humbled,” to have the privilege of following the Holy Spirit’s lead in equipping parents and strengthening these urban youth. “I love the Lord and that’s contagious,” she says when talking about the witness to Jesus Christ this camp enables. The church’s Director of Christian Education, Christian Heyer-Rivera oversees Bible study taking place three times each week.

While the Freedom School seems to have hit its stride, Ms. Jones still dreams bigger dreams. She wants to provide instructional swimming lessons, knowing inner city children are less likely to know how to swim. She is pursuing a fine arts program with a focus on art journaling projects to help youth express their thoughts and feelings through art. As fun and upbeat as the program is for these campers, she also knows the real struggles of these families and pours her heart and soul into touching them in a way that is sincere and shows the deep, deep love of God. A “rich and expansive experience” is her goal, and she and her staff seem to have placed no limits on God’s potential to keep expanding their reach.