Funding loss threatens popular Lowell program

08/03/2006
By From the Boston Globe

By Alexander Reid, Globe Staff

The city kids who traveled in yellow school buses to UMass-Lowell this summer for a camp with sports and academics loved the experience so much that they were hoping to go back next year.

Then, during an awards ceremony last Friday marking the end of camp for this summer, came the unpleasant news: Barring a huge infusion of cash, this may have been its last year.

The gloomy scenario is unsettling not only to the young campers but to the people who have helped run the popular camp for the past 15 years.

``We're all kind of stunned that it's come to this," said Dana Skinner, athletic director for the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. ``But it's the reality we're facing -- there might not be a camp next year."

Under the auspices of the National Youth Sports Program, UMass-Lowell has run this camp for low-income Lowell youths as part of a national network of colleges and universities. But federal budget cuts last year eliminated the national program's $18 million appropriation.

With zero coming from Washington, administrators were able to come up with enough money to keep some of the programs, including the one at UMass-Lowell, running on a limited basis in 2006. But beyond this summer, there is no money.

``Usually, the kids leave, and in the back of their minds have some anticipation that they will come back next year," said Skinner, shaking his head. ``Well, sad to say, there won't be a next year."

With its free tuition and structured programs, this camp has proven to be a hit among families who can't afford to send their children to summer camp.

Other than the free admission, there's little to distinguish this camp from its suburban counterparts.

Counselors exude engaging, upbeat attitudes. Outdoor activities include golf, swimming, and crew. The children, ages 10 through 16, also attend academic instruction in science and math. The program's motto -- ``Walk tall, talk tall, stand tall" -- echoes throughout a schedule that begins with breakfast around 7:30 a.m. and ends with an afternoon lunch.

Melissa Brown, 16, said the camp offers her an alternative to sitting at home. ``There'll be nothing else to do. No school, no jobs, just TV all day with my friends," she said. ``This is definitely more constructive."

Brown signed up at her mother's urging five years ago and has come back every year since. She'll be a junior at Lowell High School and aspires to be a doctor.

Though UMass began its involvement with the program in 1991, the camps have been around a lot longer than that. In 1969, the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports paired with the National Collegiate Athletic Association to create a sports and education program for disadvantaged youths on college and university campuses. The federal government initially committed $3 million, but before long, funding was increased and more schools joined the program.

In 2005, there were 202 universities and colleges sponsoring National Youth Sports Program camps, with a total enrollment of almost 73,000. The federal government committed about $18 million to the program that year.

For most youths, the camps present a rare glimpse of life in a college campus environment, where, away from their neighborhoods, they can make new friends and learn skills. With counselors acting as mentors, the non sports focuses include math and science, and seminars on alcohol and drug awareness, nutrition, and college preparedness.

Some of the more ambitious youths stay with the program after their camping days are over by signing on as junior counselors and then senior counselors. Sam Hor first enrolled at the camp as an 11-year-old. Today, 10 years later, he is a full counselor. He recently graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with a mathematics degree and wants to teach at Lowell High School.

Hor credits the camp experience with inspiring him to go to college, a first for his family.

``I was from the projects and never exposed to anything but the projects," he said. ``I came here and they motivated me. They told me I could be capable if I worked at it."

After the National Youth Sports Program got the ax from Congress last year, it was able to struggle through this summer with about $3 million left over from previous years, said Rochelle Taylor, president of the Indianapolis-based National Youth Sports Corporation. The money was parceled out to 58 of the 178 schools, including UMass-Lowell, that applied for funding.

``We distributed flat $40,000 grants, which was enough to allow a limited number of schools to offer some semblance of a camp, provided they could raise more money on their own to supplement what they received from us," said Taylor.

For UMass-Lowell, the reduced grant was about $35,000 less than what the program has normally received. So camp administrators made up the difference with money from a number of sources. The city allocated $10,000; another $10,000 came from reserves in the program's account; and $15,000 in funding was provided by the university.

``We raised enough to have 250 kids for four weeks," said Ed Scollan, activity director. He explained that the money covers transportation, equipment costs, insurance, and salaries for the paid staff. ``It was limited compared to what we usually offer, but it was the best we could do. We normally have 350 kids and run it for five weeks."

Next year is a huge question mark. Dan Wexler, a Washington lobbyist hired by the national organization, hopes to persuade Congress to restore at least part of the funding for the program in the federal budget for fiscal 2007, which begins Oct. 1.

He acknowledged that he faces tough odds.

``It's very difficult in this environment to fund a program that has already been eliminated," he said. ``But if we could get at least $10 million, that would be enough to keep it going. Compared to a lot of other things in the budget, that's not a lot of money."

US Representative Martin Meehan, a Lowell Democrat who has expressed alarm at the cuts, said he will work to save the program. He plans to file an amendment to appropriate $10 million for the program.

``This represents an investment in our youth; it should be a priority," Meehan said in an interview this week. ``It's a vital program for young people in Lowell who would otherwise have no other options."

Closer to home, Skinner, who is also a member of the national organization's board of directors, said he will seek financial commitments from the university as well as foundations and corporate sources. He said, ``We're going to need help if we're going to survive."