Summer camp is a privilege that not all children have the opportunity to enjoy. But two Brookline-based organizations, The Park School and Steps to Success have partnered each summer since 2000 to bridge this gap. Mary Russell, the director of external programs at the Park School, came to this position aiming to build a summer camp program at the school. But Russell quickly ran into challenges 

“One of the things we needed was space,” Russell said. “We wanted to use off-campus tennis courts and bus the kids over. Instead of paying the town, I thought that we could reach out to children in the community that wanted to take advantage of what the Park School has to offer and create a barter program.” 

The Park School ended up partnering with Steps to Success, a non-profit organization whose mission is to enhance educational opportunities for children from low-income families and offered the Summer at Park programs free for Steps kids in exchange for the use of  Town of Brookline facilities.  “In 2000, we started with six campers, and we were able to use the tennis camps,” Russell said. “Over the years, we continued to find ways to use different parts of the town’s space in exchange for scholarships for kids. If we had to put a value on that, it’s been about $270,000 in scholarship money.”

Shoma Haque, the executive director of Steps to Success, attests to the value that the Summer at Park programs has provided for the children involved in her organization. “All of our students live in public housing and qualify for free and reduced lunch,” Haque said. But they also have the difficult experience of living in a community with a lot of income inequality. Our students don’t have the same opportunity to have these types of experiences in the summer.” The Park School has offered scholarships to approximately 216 Steps to Success kids since this partnership began.

The opportunities available at Summer at Park range from athletic programs like soccer and field hockey to science and technology, and even creative-based workshops for cooking and movie making. Russell aims to keep the workshop and class sizes relatively small, in order to provide individual attention to each student. The students from Steps to Success especially benefit from this one-on-one attention. “When they come here, we give them confidence and support,” Russell said. “We pay attention to them. I think they grow tremendously under our little sun. We are a smaller program, so we’re able to get to know them. Our best campers each year have been the Steps kids. I wish we could fill our camps with them!”

The Park School is a sprawling, 34-acre campus with a pond and lush woods. For a child living in public housing, it is easy to see how roaming the Summer at Park campus is such a special opportunity.  “The Park campus is beautiful,” Haque said. “It’s a very special place in Brookline that many people are not aware of. It’s wooded, and you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. When you’re a kid, to become lost in that world is very magical. That kind of experience for any kid is transformative.”

This partnership comes with challenges like coordinating transportation and helping the Steps kids blend in as much as possible among wealthier peers. “We noticed many children arrived at camp without having support for lunch,” Russell said. “We were able to identify that very early. The one thing that we did not want these children to feel was different. We wanted them to come to camp and be like everyone else. We were able to work with Shoma and her team and write some grants to get lunches paid for so they wouldn’t have to worry. It’s important for them not to have to worry about anything except for being a kid and having fun.” Summer at Park coordinators also make a point to arrange classes and workshops with a balanced ratio of Steps students and non-Steps students, so all enrollees have the opportunity to branch out socially. 

With this partnership going on nearly 20 years, both women are eager to continue even with Russell planning to retire. The Summer at Park partnership has served as a model for other camp programs in the community. “We now have relationships with other independent schools in the area, because of Mary, that have stepped forward and provided camper slots for our students as well,” Haque said. “None of this would have happened without her advocacy.” But Russell seems much more interested in the effects of her work, rather than taking credit for it. “We live in a very rich community here in Brookline,” she said. “What we did was challenge the other summer camps to step up. There is no reason — with the wealth in this community — that we can’t reach out to the less fortunate and offer them all kinds of opportunities in this town. This model should be an example for others to pay it forward.”

By Alicia Landsberg