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Summertime scholars

Mizzou students help keep the fun in a local youth academy

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  • Story by Nancy Moen
  • Photo by Shane Epping
  • Published: July 16, 2012
Fun city

Mizzou volunteers Jessica Hulen (seated, left) and Jeneé Duncan (seated, right) work with students in Fun City Youth Academy, a summer program in Columbia's First Ward. Their young charges include (from left): Tyrique Miller-Liddell, Derrick Young, Jahmon Smith Jr., Herman Clifton IV, Brooklyn Wilson, Sania Hambright, Samijah Myers and Maria Hernandez.

A mix of good times and learning, Fun City Youth Academy gives Columbia kids a summer to remember. And for the Mizzou students who serve as volunteers, the work with children of low-income families is invaluable service learning.

Senior Jessica Hulen and May graduate Jeneé Duncan from MU's College of Human and Environmental Sciences are preparing for careers that assist struggling families, possibly through non-governmental agencies.

Although they have similar career paths, Duncan and Hulen grew up in surroundings as different as night and day.

Dense with low-cost housing and minority families, Duncan’s hometown Chicago neighborhood is similar to Columbia’s central city. Columbia-native Hulen, however, was unfamiliar with the central city and, before this summer, had never been inside Douglass High School, where Fun City classes are held.

Hulen was unsure of what to expect. “I was nervous, but I wanted and needed to experience the diverseness,” she says.

The volunteers’ job is to help keep order, answer questions and focus the 88 enrolled kids — kindergarten through eighth grade — on their varied activities. Day one was “crazy,” the volunteers say, with excited children as young as 5 learning how to move from class to class like high school students. 

Settled into the the all-day 8-week program, which runs through July 27, the newly orderly youngsters now file quietly through the halls to their classes.

In a partnership with the Columbia Housing Authority, teachers from Columbia Public Schools and Douglass High School direct the curriculum and teach morning classes in math, science, reading and language arts. Fun City teachers take over after lunch. The cost of the program varies with the parents’ ability to pay.

On the job

During afternoon enrichment sessions, the hands-on fun begins. Students rotate through activities in art, international culture, poetry and science.

They try out gardening and healthful cooking. They explore African-American culture, form their own model cities and practice new entrepreneurial skills through kid-centered businesses. Guest presenters and field trips vary the routines, and Friday's popular swimming and sports activities bring each week to a close.

Responding to the needs of the students, Mizzou volunteers tag team with teachers.  

On the job “Miss Jessica” watches over her young charges during their after-lunch rest, and “Miss Jeneé” joins a group of third-grade boys and their instructor in an art project. The young artists mold designs of animals onto clay plaques that will be fired in a kiln. While creating, the students discuss their favorite stars of professional basketball.

Miss Jeneé lifts one eyebrow as she keeps an eye on some extracurricular competition. The art project stops briefly when two boys engage in a staring contest.

Miss Jeneé sits across the table from Curtis, a charmer, who says the best part of the morning science lesson was looking into a microscope. That experience set him thinking that maybe he should do something in science and art for his career, so he added those options to his aspiration of playing professional football.

That’s the whole point of Fun City: to expand the children’s ability and interest in academics, especially in the critical areas of math, reading and science.

Kid talk

From a child’s point of view, Fun City Academy is a great place to be with friends. A third-grade girl invited Miss Jeneé to “come play in the sand with me,” so she did. This is, after all, summer, and it’s the time for fun as well as learning.

Breakfast and lunch, provided as part of the program, are favorite parts of the day for all the kids, and Curtis announces his food preferences: cereal for breakfast and chicken nuggets for lunch. He mentions another favorite activity, a movie his class watched “about a girl whose pa was stolen away.” Miss Jeneé reminded him that the film subject was slavery.

The Mizzou volunteers have adopted methods of channeling childish energy from horseplay to more productive pursuits. “We do a whole lot of redirection. They’re kids being kids and having fun. Sometimes they get angry at you, but in five minutes it’s over,” Hulen says.

Participation is key. A 45-minute dance session releases pent-up energy. A drumming session during a class on African-American culture encourages musicianship. Breakout projects in cooking and gardening — led by staff members of MU Extension — keep hands busy and reinforce newly learned skills.

Service learning

MU students have been assisting the Fun City Academy for more than 10 years, according to Anne Case-Halferty, project coordinator for MU’s Office of Service Learning.

“For students going into a competitive job market, getting this experience sets them apart. They can speak about being part of the solution to a problem. It also reinforces what they want to do or what they’re passionate about,” she says.

MU offers 150 courses with service-learning components, and the Office of Service Learning works with any student who wants to volunteer, with or without credit. Students can search an online database for opportunities.

“Service learning gives students a toe in the water to serving their community. To us, the happiest ending is seeing students love it and stay on after the class ends. Some become long-term volunteers,” Case-Halferty says.

Mizzou volunteers' participation in Fun City extends beyond the work week. On weekends, 12-15 students from multidisciplinary backgrounds assist the teachers of Saturday Academy. 

“We are huge fans of Mizzou students — the service-learning students do the Saturday morning program in tandem with the school year. We couldn’t run that program without service learners,” says Carolyn Micklem, executive director of Fun City.

Giving back

When Miss Jeneé begins her master’s degree program at the University of Georgia after graduating from Mizzou in December 2012, she’ll focus on healthy relationships, which she is modeling with the children at Fun City Academy.

“It’s giving back. I wasn’t sure what I was walking into. These kids are dealing with a lot. I learned to have patience,” Duncan says of the experience.

She sees the benefits of diverse activities and extra attention for young learners.

“It would have been nice for me to have something like this as a child,” Duncan says.

Read more in:  Beyond CampusFamily & CommunityEducationArts & Culture

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Last updated: July 16, 2012