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KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

Camp For Homeless Children Gives Kids A Taste Of University Life

A week-long camp for homeless children in North Texas will end with an official commencement ceremony at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Organizers want these kids to get the feel of life on a college campus and return one day as undergraduates.

Kids University is a happy, chaotic, inventive summer camp put on by UT Dallas and the non-profit Rainbow Days which focuses on at-risk kids.

They can mix up a batch of slime and watch as a tiny car zooms down the track of a miniature roller coaster. There’s yoga and team-building exercises with hula hoops.

For just-turned-9-year-old Rachel Arthur, nothing can hold a candle to Home Depot class.

Credit Julia Frasco Santosuosso / Rainbow Days
Rainbow Days
Rachel and Johnny work on a tic-tac-toe board.

“I made a new friend at Home Depot, his name’s Johnny. He works there. We made a toolbox, we’re going to put everything we made in there,” Rachel says.

Today’s activity is making portable tic-tac-toe boards out of burlap. The dull roar in this room is pure excitement. When Rachel was living in a homeless shelter, the noise she put up with was a lot less fun.

“Every night I’d try to go to sleep and there was like crying babies and mothers yelling and I can’t go to sleep,” she says.

Rachel lives in transitional housing with her Mom now, an apartment which she likes better than the shelter. If it were up to her though, she’d live in a ten-story house. She’d keep a room for herself, and share the others.

“Like people that are sitting on the streets, I’d say do you have a home? And if they say no I’d say, come with me and I’ll give you one,” she says.

Rachel and her 149 fellow campers have lived a life most of us can’t even picture.

The Highlight Of Their Childhood

For some of these kids, camp isn’t just the highlight of their summer, it’s the highlight of their childhood. Kelly Wierzbinski with Rainbow Days has proof.

“I’ve had two interns, they were children in our program and they came to me and showed me the nametag that they had when they were 7 or 8 years old and the children said this camp meant so much to me I kept this to remember that I can achieve my dreams and goals,” she says.

Wierzbinski hopes college will be a goal for all these kids, which is why Rainbow Days and UTD have been partners for the last 20 years.

George Fair is a dean at the university.

“That’s the idea is we give them the chance to really see and understand this is what a university looks like, this is what a university feels like and that there are lots of productive activities one can experience here,” says Fair.

Higher Education

One of those is pre-algebra, he’s managed to make fun and accessible for kids as young as second grade.

With such a heavy emphasis on math, science and engineering, Kids University ought to end with a graduation. The kids leave with diplomas. Organizers hope they’ll also leave with lofty ambitions.

Rachel Arthur doesn’t disappoint.

“When I grow up I want to be a few things. It’s a teacher, a diver, be a tiger trainer,” says Rachel. “I think that’s what I want to do, because my favorite animal is tigers and every time I see one it’s just thrilling to me because I like them so much.”

It’s hard to imagine they won’t like her back.

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.