In the Summer in the City

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Summer in the City started in 2002 less with an idea than with an itch: What if volunteer work worked better? Better for the volunteers and better for the communities they served.

For all the symbolic value of large-scale service days and sporadic mitzvah projects, it seemed to Michael Goldberg, Neil Greenberg and me — fellow nursery school alumni, then the ripe old age of 20 — that the itch needed scratching.

Specifically, we sought a creative way to connect the conspicuous demand for volunteers, with a virtually limitless supply of volunteers, to raise the quality of life in Detroit and build sturdy bridges between the city and suburbs.

Ten years later, Summer in the City has made tikkun olam “fun, flexible and fulfilling” for thousands of volunteers (hundreds daily) who show up during the summer to “paint, plant and play” in Detroit — at least those who aren’t turned off by our abundant alliteration and “air quotes.”

In a defining moment from our first decade, Focus: HOPE enlisted us to paint a mural at Glazer Elementary School, named for a Temple Beth El rabbi and located a stone’s throw from Central High School in the stomping ground of a previous Jewish generation. Everything was progressing smoothly except for these pesky, irresistible students who kept coming to the gym, distracting our volunteers.

Thus, Project Play was born. Our high school and college volunteers now have the opportunity, privilege and challenge of spending summer days with hundreds of Detroit’s extraordinary elementary schoolers.

Beyond tutoring, the essence of the volunteer’s role is to be a “buddy.” We wanted to take one of summer camp’s best attributes — the super cool teenage counselors — and give that experience to kids in the city.

We thought each and every city kid deserved — after a school year in an overstuffed, under-resourced classroom — a supportive, enthusiastic buddy to read, write, draw, paint, dance, sing, dribble, pass, field trip, laugh and laugh some more with.

In a city often governed by fear, anxiety and hostility, we have aspired to create a space where kids (of all ages) can safely be their sublimely silly selves. And it’s been a blast.

Then — perennially, inevitably — in the blink of an eye it’s back to school in a district that struggles to engage or educate them. The statistics say these curious, empathetic, indefatigable kids ought to fail. They have every reason to slip through the cracks and discover firsthand just how closely connected our urban education and criminal justice systems are.

But they keep growing up and showing up, summer after summer.

“Camp Glazer” has become a strong incentive for students to get good grades. And former Glazer campers are now some of our most dedicated volunteers and powerful role models.

And we fought like hell for two years to keep DPS from closing Glazer. It will remain open, but as a charter school with great uncertainty about which leaders, teachers, students and parents will be back in the fall.

Wanna help? (Because Judaism teaches that every life has the value? Because you know that city problems don’t stop at city limits? Or, because you think these kids have as much potential to be inventors and investors as indigents and inmates?)

Well, help you can: August is Backpacktacular. It’s an initiative, back by popular demand, to send our campers back to school wearing backpacks replete with books, notepads, crayons and other tools — to let them know they’ve got buddies root-root-rooting for them all year round. Cash is king, but in-kind donations are also kind.
Visit www.summerinthecity.com/backpacks for details and smiles.

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