by Dennis Page
For most kids it is taken for granted that summer is a time of carefree fun – filled with trips to parks and pools and hanging out with friends.
But for children who have a parent in prison, the summer months when there’s no school can be a long, lonely time – often accompanied with poverty and depression.
The Elizabeth Fry Society has been operating camps for these kids in Vancouver for the past two years and has now expanded the program to serve children and families in Surrey. The society offers week-long free summer camps for six- to nine-year-olds who have a family member involved in the justice system.
“Children of prisoners have very difficult lives, and when you’re poor, you self-limit yourself and you don’t gain the confidence to try new things,” said Shawn Bayes, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society
One of the activities that the kids are exposed to is a trip to the Hotel Vancouver, where they are encouraged to talk to the hotel staff and have high tea. Such outings, Bayes says, help build confidence.
Some of the other activities include trips to Playland and community pools, karate lessons, learning arts and crafts, and playing games that encourage the youngsters to interact with one another and make friends.
“We ask the kids to tell us what their favourite thing about the camps is, and they always tell us, ‘I’ve made my first friend’, ” said Bayes, adding for children in this situation, living a normal life can be difficult as many feel embarrassed or ashamed and are reluctant to talk and develop important social skills.
According to the Elizabeth Fry Society, the related statistics are worrisome. On average, 2,100 kids in the Lower Mainland have a parent who is incarcerated. About half of those young people end up in prison themselves.
“The feedback we are getting from parents and caregivers is that they are telling us that the kids are making friends for the first time, have increased confidence and self-esteem and that they are happier,” said Bayes.
Bayes also explains that Canada is the only Commonwealth country that does not recognize children of prisoners as being a marginalized group and needing assistance. There is no government funding in place to help these kids, and grants that were once available for children living in poverty to attend summer camps have been removed.
Despite the lack of government support, the summer camps are free and include meals and bus passes.
JustKids also offers the Saturday Club during the school year, which helps the kids to stay connected with the friends they make at camp.
JustKids, a division of the Elizabeth Fry Society, is now accepting registrations for the Surrey camps, which run 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Aug. 7-10 and Aug. 13-17. To register, call 604-520-1166. To make a donation or for more information, visit www.just-kids.ca