Fun with greater purpose at Sand Hills Summer Youth program

(Featured photo of Karen Brown coaching a student prior to the culminating program at the Sand Hills Community Center on June 16. Charmain Z. Brackett/Augusta Good News)

Headed by a renowned ballerina, a summer enrichment program is different from others.

Yes, the Sand Hills Summer Youth Program Karen Brown operates has the fun stuff – dance, art, field trips. But Brown adds intrinsic life lessons and values in hopes of changing the way her middle school charges see themselves and sowing seeds for future success.

“Excellence, discipline, critical thinking, empathy, community” are only a few of the lifechanging intangibles she wants to foster during her time with them.

In its sixth year, the first session was June 12-16, and the second session is coming up June 26-30. Held at the Sand Hills Community Center, the program begins at 1 p.m. after the senior adults who regularly use the center have finished their activities.

Early in the week, she asks the students tough questions, and sometimes, the responses she receives are heartbreaking.

“Who are you?” “Why are you here?” “What’s your greatest expectation?” “What’s your greatest fear?” are among the questions she poses.

Read More: Sand Hills Summer Youth Program offers arts, financial literacy and athletics

Over the years, she’s received a wide response. While some students say they are there to change the world, others respond that their greatest fear is to be a victim of a drive-by shooting or to wind up in prison.

Brown draws from her personal and professional experience to give them tools they will need on their life’s journey.

“I’m using all of the executive coaching, all the personal development and professional coaching I’ve had,” she said.

The questions she asks are designed to expand the students’ thinking.

“Everyone is special, but what is your unique gift that no one else has?” she said she asks them. “No one has ever asked them that before. I create a safe space for vulnerability.”

Brown’s family lived in the Sand Hills community. Her parents instilled in her and her siblings the values and beliefs that led them to their successes. While she has no children of her own, Brown believes in giving back what she was taught and the adage of “each one, teach one.”

Brown knows what professional success looks like.

A graduate of Aquinas High School, Brown was the principal ballerina for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, under its founding artistic director, Arthur Mitchell, from 1973 to 1995.

Ballerina Karen Brown spent 22 years performing at the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Photo courtesy Brown’s website.

She was a master teacher and adjudicator for the inaugural Dance Theatre of Harlem/ Kennedy Center Community Outreach Residency Program. She spent two years as director of education for the Atlanta Ballet and was the artistic director of the Oakland Ballet and the executive director of Garth Fagan Dance. She served as an assistant professor at the University of Arts in Philadelphia and currently serves as an assistant professor of dance at the University of Missouri Kansas City Conservatory.

Brown is also a businesswoman, marrying her love of teaching and dance.

Her life experiences have taught her discipline and accountability. She runs her program with those as well.

When students first arrive at camp, they learn the rules quickly.

There aren’t many, but they are strictly adhered to – no exceptions.

“Ask permission,” “Don’t hurt anyone’s feelings,” “Have fun.” Also, no cell phones except during the lunch break and get to know others are among the rules for the camp.

“I’m giving them scaffolding to maneuver the world they are growing up in,” she said.

Students prepared for their culminating event June 16 at the Sand Hills Community Center. Charmain Z. Brackett/Augusta Good News

Learning how to carry themselves, articulate their feelings and communicate with one another are important pieces of the summer experience.

“Some don’t know how to look you in the eye,” she said. “They don’t know how to shake someone’s hand. Shaking hands is an exchange of energy between two alive beings.”

While the rules might seem strict, Brown explains the reasons for them because if children know the reasons why, they are more likely to follow them, she said. She uses positive reinforcement throughout the week to help achieve goals. Students receive points for a variety of reason such as being on time, wearing their camp shirts and being kind to one another. The top point getters receive cash prizes.

During each session, she’s evaluating how she can make the camp better.

Brown said she’d like to scale the camp in the future.

“I need more time. The talent is so raw and untrained. It almost takes me four days before they have discipline for me to pour into them,” she said.

She also would like to find out more about their interests to pull in resources from the community.

 “I know people in every field,” she said.

 She already links them with high caliber musicians such as Wycliffe Gordon, who plans to attend early in the next session, actors such as her brother, Russell Joel Brown, who performed on Broadway with Disney’s The Lion King, as well as government officials, business owners and other community leaders.

 Some people who’ve led interesting lives congregate just outside the center in a vacant lot.

Brown bridged the gap to those individuals by visiting during the first session and inviting them to the culminating event that happens during each camp. Their stories, their experiences are part of the fabric of the community and the children don’t know who they are, but should, she said.

In future camps, she might add a line to the registration asking what interests the student

If they want to learn more about agriculture, for example, she can bring in a farmer, or if science is their field of study, she knows scientists. It wouldn’t be a career day, per se, but it would be the opportunity to network with and meet other potential role models.

 “I know people in every field. I’d like to be able to do that,” she said.

Charmain Z. Brackett, the publisher of Augusta Good News, has covered Augusta’s news for 35 years. Reach her at Sign up for the newsletter here.

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