Imagine being afraid of summer, knowing that with it comes less food and countless hours of time to fill, many times without adult supervision. This is the case for many Columbia children who rely on school for at least two healthy meals a day as well as the structure that all children need.
This lack called out to Mary Stover, Ph.D., in the middle of the night. She experienced a nagging feeling that something needed to be done to combat these issues. Mary had just been called into a gospel ministry as a preacher after finishing seminary. She came home from church one evening and could not get to sleep. Even after taking a sleeping aid, she stayed awake. “I said, ‘Okay, God, this must be you, but I don’t know what it is you want me to do,’” says Mary. Soon after, she fell asleep and began to have a dream akin to that of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Story. In her dream, she walked into one house after the other, where she witnessed children in all manner of unrest and danger. “After I saw these visions, I awoke and said, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ The Holy Spirit told me to take care of the children.”
Immediately after the dream, the concept of a summer enrichment program came to Mary’s mind. She told Rufus, her husband, that she had to do this and that she could not charge families for the service. The Reading Arts Mathematics (RAM) Summer Enrichment Program was founded soon after, and Mary began to fulfill her promise to God and to children in the community. “I wanted to create a program that would help keep these children from being hungry, that would protect them, and that would offer them opportunities to which they would not generally have access,” she says.
As a former public school teacher, Mary had seen many situations that troubled her, including countless children who were under-resourced and needed help. The Summer Enrichment Program is RAM’s anchor with two locations in Columbia — one in the C.A. Johnson High School/Benedict College area and the other in the Eau Claire area. Through the two locations, the program is able to serve seven communities and up to 50 children at each site. Children ages 4 to 13 are welcome in the program, with 14 to 15-year-olds having the opportunity to serve as junior counselors.
Children participating in the camp learn valuable experiences bringing essential life skills, exposure to different ways of learning, and an opportunity to enjoy the arts. Mary and her team take a holistic approach with the camp, focusing on social, academic, and health and wellness issues. The camps place a strong emphasis on the arts, introducing children to violin, piano, karate, carpentry, sewing, and more. “Many children in our communities think the only way that they can be successful and make money is through athletics,” says Mary, “but we let them know that there are other avenues to success.”
For Dr. Deitra Matthews, RAM director of programming and Mary’s daughter, the camps are meant to focus on much more than academics. “First and foremost, our goal is to provide a safe haven for the children and a bit of consistency,” says Deitra. “Although we do have an academic focus at our camps, our intent is not to turn the children into rocket scientists. We are grateful to have the children with us over the summer, but we only have them for six weeks.”
She says that their most important role is to give the children a safe, nurturing place where they know they are loved and to expose them to new, exciting opportunities that they may not have experienced in the past. Deitra and Mary believe that when a child has access to valuable new experiences, it is the equivalent of reading a book.
“Children from more affluent homes may go on two to three vacations over the summer,” Deitra continues, “which is in essence from our perspective, reading the equivalent of two to three books. These experiences make an indelible difference on the campers’ lives.”
In addition to providing a nurturing safe haven, the team at the RAM Foundation is also taking a more progressive approach to helping the children deal with some of life’s more challenging situations. This past summer, it introduced mindfulness and yoga. With an increase in suicides in children ages 8 to 13, the team felt it was important to provide other methods for helping children learn to cope with personal issues and their mental health. ”We believe exposing the children to the benefits of mindfulness and yoga and talking about mental health is just as important as focusing on their physical health,” says Deitra.
She points out that sometimes pinpointing children’s needs is a daunting task. “Don’t let the children’s outward appearance fool you. Some of the families will sacrifice food for their appearance, as personal parental pride is paramount for so many. There are occasions when the children will walk in looking very well put together, but after only seconds, it’s evident that they haven’t bathed or eaten in days. It’s for these and so many other reasons that we treasure being able to give back to the community through the camps.”
While the campers get to participate in new, stimulating experiences, junior counselors also receive a great learning opportunity. Students interested in becoming counselors undergo an employment vetting process before being hired. For many, it is their first time being exposed to the hiring process and actual employment where they earn money. Counselors receive a $200 stipend at the end of the program and walk away with valuable life skills. “Our goal is to prepare these children for public service and employee readiness,” says Mary.
For both counselors and campers alike, the RAM Foundation has an enduring impact. Nichole Smith found the camp to be life-changing for her goddaughter, Ayanna, who has attended for two summers. Ayanna has an affinity for the violin and had played in the past. Being reintroduced to the instrument through the RAM program stoked an already kindling flame.
“At the conclusion of the 2017 session, Ayanna performed on stage with several of her classmates,” says Nichole. “She did a fantastic job. Consequently, as Ayanna’s birthday approached at the end of July, I began to contemplate what kind of present to get her and asked what she would like to receive. Like all children, she had a list of items. Among the items she named was a violin. Watching her learn to play the violin, affectionately named Violeta, has been a joy.”
As Nichole reflects back on watching the budding musician, she describes Ayanna applying rosin to the bow, the cacophonous plucking sounds, and the tentative sounds of recognizable music rising in the air. “The process has been wonderful,” she continues. “She has held several concerts via video for family and friends. All of these moments were made possible by the RAM program, which helped brighten one young lady’s life and enabled a dream to be realized.”
The team at the RAM Foundation is also dreaming big. Their ultimate goal is to raise enough funding to open a year-round program. They have already taken strides to expand the program by responding to specific needs from the community. During the 2015 flood, the foundation donated 100 teddy bears to first responders to give to children who had been displaced from their homes. It was one small way they could let the children know that someone cared and was thinking about them. They also donated teddy bears to the school district to give to children whose family could not afford them.
Today, the organization relies on the generosity of family and friends not only to share insight on where there is a need but also to garner funding. Through a robust grant outreach program and a strong marketing effort, Mary and her team are hoping to share the good news and success stories of the RAM Foundation so they can continue to raise funds to ensure the vital program lives on.