RICHFORD – A visit to Franklin County last Wednesday gave U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a chance to discuss two youth-related concerns -- unemployment and the loss of academic skills students experience over the summer.
In Richford, Sanders visited the free day camp run by Northern Tiers Center for Health (NOTCH), which serves more than 190 kids from Richford and Berkshire. Children attend the six-week camp, which is held for half-days, free of charge.
The camp employs 20 counselors and has another 26 teens doing community service. "One hundred percent of our counselors were campers," said NOTCH executive director Pam Parsons.
The counselors, who are paid a daily stipend, gain experience applying and interviewing for jobs as well as holding a job.
Sanders attached a $1.5 billion youth employment program to the Senate's immigration bill, and said he hopes that if the bill passes and becomes law some of the funding will go to employ teens at programs like NOTCH's. "It's helping to get kids off to a good start… It's extraordinarily important," said Sanders.
Employing teens at summer camps and other programs for children would allow the teenagers to get work experience while expanding the number of children who could be served by the programs, suggested Sanders.
Activities at the NOTCH camp include gardening, kayaking, crafts, and a book program run by volunteers from the Foster Grandparent Program. The camp is open in the morning and provides all participants with a free lunch.
"What educators will tell you is kids, especially kids who are not exposed to books at home, will lose some skills over the summer and it takes them about a month to catch up (when school reconvenes)," said Sanders.
Students who chose to spend part of their day reading about ancient Egypt were asked if they had read any books the night before or if anyone had read to them. Most said 'no.'
The NOTCH camps costs $40,000 for all six weeks, or roughly $200 per child.
"They need it for the parents. They need it for the kids. It's cost effective," said Sanders of the investment made in Richford
Sanders also paid a visit to the St. Albans City Recreation Department day camp, which runs from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays for 10 weeks during the summer.
Asked about the reasons children attend the camp, recreation director Kelly Viens replied, "Some just want to have a great time and go to camp, and some really need childcare."
Like the NOTCH program, the St. Albans day camp also provides a free lunch to all campers. In addition, the city runs a free lunch program at the city pool. When the program first began, children were suspicious when offered free food, according to Viens. "Now we have kids who are waiting for lunch," she said.
Viens expanded the free lunch program to the pool because she observed kids who would spend the entire day at the pool with no sign of having eaten. "We would have kids outside the pool at 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. and they were still there at 5 p.m.," she said.
St. Albans City School also offers both free breakfast and lunch to children throughout the summer.
The day camp costs $159 for five days, and some parents spread the five days over more than one week. Campers can also attend part-time. Scholarships are available through the Wonder foundation and the program works with the Dept. for Children and Families, explained Viens.
Scholarships are also given to the St. Albans City and Town schools, which distribute them to families in need.
The recreation department employs 36 high school and college students, 18 camp counselors and 18 lifeguards and swim instructors at the city pool.
The staff all start at minimum wage, but their wages increase as they gain seniority or are assigned more responsibilities, explained Viens, when asked about youth employment.
Sanders’ immigration amendment would set aside $1.5 billion over two years for states and local communities to help find summertime and year-round jobs for more than 400,000 16- to 24-year-olds. Each state would get at least $7.5 million, which would mean about 2,000 jobs for Vermont.
The amendment is, in part, a response to the J-1 visa program allowing students from overseas to come to the U.S. to work. Under the program, employers do not have to pay Social Security, Medicare and other taxes that businesses would owe on U.S. workers. “Today the J-1 program has morphed into a low-wage jobs program to allow corporations like Hershey's and McDonald's and many others to replace young American workers with cheaper labor from abroad,” Sanders said.
For a portion of his visit, Sanders took questions from campers. Asked why we went to Washington, Sanders answered, "Because I want to make sure, among other things, that people who don't have a lot of money can have a good life, too."
One young boy asked, "Where do you get food?"
Sanders initially replied that he eats at the cafeteria in the building where he works until counselors clarified that the boy wanted to know about the food for the free lunch program.
"In Washington, what we try to do is make sure no child in America goes hungry," he answered.