Teaching kids healthy habits at North Light summer camp

At Manayunk’s North Light Community Center, Childcare Programs Director John Jacobs and his summer campers are redefining an American culinary classic.

“All right, listen up guys!” Jacobs says to the group of youngsters, ranging in age from seven to 12.  “You all know how to make ants on a log.” The challenge is to use the same ingredients—celery, peanut butter and raisins—to make edible sculptures.

Some kids are skeptical. 

“I’m hungry. Can I just eat it?”

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Others are inspired. 

“I’m making a Cyclops!”

But whether they end up with edible art or a peanut-buttery mess, it’s all part of Jacobs’ mission to teach campers a bigger lesson about nutrition.

“I want to teach these kids that going to the store and buying chips and soda is not a good idea,” Jacobs says.

Building a stronger, healthier life

The theme of this year’s summer camp is “Eating Healthy and Living Stronger.” In addition to the cooking lessons, summer activities include dance classes, circuit training and trips to farms, orchards and arboretums.

Over the course of the summer, campers will fill up recipe books with easy instructions to make healthy meals. Building on last summer’s sustainability theme, the kids will also be growing their own vegetables.

Jacobs says his recipes are inspired by snacks and meals that his own kids, ages five and seven, are able make for themselves. The recipes are also modified for each age group; while kids age 7 and up made celery sculptures, kids age three to six stuck to the classic ants on a log.

On the menu are bagel pizzas (topped with fresh vegetables), a garden salad, and lettuce wraps.

“It’s about using few ingredients to make simple children’s meals.”

Rethinking the definition of healthy 

The exercise curriculum is also designed to help kids rethink what it means to be healthy. “For years I’ve seen kids think that exercise is jumping jacks, push ups, running,” Jacobs says. He wants to expand that definition.

The community center has partnered with the local Merge Dance Studio to offer Zumba, hip-hop, jazz and modern dance classes for the older campers and creative movement sessions for the younger kids. And there are plans to take the kids out to the local pool and bowling alley.

Even traditional exercise programs are getting spruced up. Group Leader Leann Hreso is leading classes in flip fitness, a circuit training exercise program.

And to drive the overall theme home, students from Drexel and Villanova are teaching kids about summer safety, cardio and diet.

Making camp accessible 

The summer camp program, and others like it, are largely made possible by corporate and individual donations.

North Light accepts state subsidies and charges tuition on a sliding scale based on a family’s income. According to Jacobs, ninety-percent of the campers pay a subsidized fee.

“With the economy being as it is,” says Executive Director Irene Madrak, “fewer people are able to pay the upper rungs of the paying scale.”

But programming fees cover only 15 to 20 percent of the center’s operating budget. The recession has taken a toll on many nonprofits, Madrak says. “And I’m not seeing a huge let-up yet.”

North Light has had its share of financial troubles, and according to Madrak, the community center has changed its fundraising strategies as a way to cope.

The center is holding smaller, but more frequent fundraising events (including an upcoming “Casino Night”) to encourage more individual donations, even as they pursue grants and corporate sponsorships.

“We’re probably going to finish pretty close to a balanced budget this year,” Madrak says.

North Light’s summer camp runs though August 23. Parents can still register their children at northlightcommunitycenter.org

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