In 1996, at the age of 12, I’d just stepped off the 72-seat passenger school bus with my then-best-friend-for-the-week. I was there with my summer camp group at Centennial Olympic Park, the 21-acre green space nestled in between the Georgia World Congress Center, the OMNI (now Phillips Arena), Georgia Dome, CNN Center, Marietta Street and Baker Street. Having just finished our trip from southwest Atlanta with 60 other campers on the bus, the hot summer sun was certainly harsh, however, dashing through the Centennial Olympic Fountain of Rings offered a unique way to get some respite from the heat.
This trip was one of several that I enjoyed with the Camp Best Friends summer program, facilitated through the city of Atlanta. For many of my campmates, it was their first time downtown. Although we were all life-long Atlanta residents, many of us had not left our communities. The furthest we had gone at any one time may have been to school or camp field trips. That hot day in July was no exception. Although a traditional summer day-camp program, Camp Best Friends offered more than “child care” to young Atlanta citizens. For most, exposure to a new place was gained; for me, it was perspective. Fast-forward 20 years and I am the director of the very program that played such a pivotal role in my life.
In 1979, Atlanta was growing and stepping into its own identity, which would later brand the place as the “The City Too Busy to Hate.” It was developing into one of the United States’ most significant and essential transportation, commercial and financial hubs. With growth and popularity came more people, responsibility and liability. The infamous “missing and murdered children” cases (a series of murders of youth and adults from asphyxiation) plagued the city in 1979 as well. Between summer 1979 and spring 1981, 29 children and young adults were declared missing and eventually found dead. The first victims were two 14-year-old boys and a 12-year-old girl. Leading up to 1980, all of the victims were between the ages of nine and 14; however, the last two victims were adult men. In 1981, after Wayne Williams was found guilty of the crimes, the administration wanted to create a “safe haven” for Atlanta’s youth and teens, restoring comfort back into the hearts of Atlanta constituents. A result of these events was the birth of “Super Summer,” a free summer camp program for youth and teens. In 1997, the program reached its highest year of enrollment: 15,097 campers at 60 locations. The initiative’s objectives were to provide enrichment programs that focused on different recreational, educational and cultural principles.
The program was later renamed Camp Best Friends and is currently one of the largest summer camp programs in the United States, hosting 25 locations for up to 4,000 youth, teens and seniors.
Present-Day Camp Best Friends
Campers of all ages participate in diverse activities based around a new theme each summer. There is a wide spectrum of activities that campers are exposed to, including traditional activities (arts and crafts), recreational activities (swimming and disc golf), service-learning projects benefiting local women and children shelters and building park benches to support parks and green spaces with Atlanta Community Toolbank. Aiming to perpetuate its forward-thinking reputation, one of Camp Best Friends’ goals for this past summer was to close the digital divide by incorporating STEAM-related (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) curriculum as a way to formally support learning through exposure in an unconventional yet impactful way for our campers.
How Did I Get Here?
As an Atlanta native and employee of the city of Atlanta Department of Parks and Recreation, I am fortunate enough to realize the impact the department had on my upbringing as I participated in its programming through my adolescent years. I had team coaches, dance instructors and camp counselors, alongside the guidance of my mother, to rear me. It was Camp Best Friends that allowed me to discern and engage in the diversity that my city produced. It was the dance and athletic programs that expanded my extracurricular activities, providing an outlet that decreased the amount of free time that often leaves youth to troublesome activities. It was the Junior Lifeguard Program that introduced me to my first job and allowed me to work directly with youth, giving me a firsthand look at children with problems that outweighed mine. It was here that I also learned my position with the city was more than a title. I served as a mentor, role model, coach and counselor to the children who frequented the pool.
Upon returning home from college and in desperate need of employment, the same department that nurtured and cared for me in my youth welcomed me with open arms and hired me for my first full-time position. While grateful to Atlanta and its programming, I am also fortunate to recognize some of the challenges that can come with producing quality programs. As a product of the system, I am more able to recognize what needs to be amended. My involvement in the city’s recreational activities let me know that post-secondary education was an option and I could do more than what my neighborhood taught me. But, what about the youth who cannot afford to participate in such activities? Many youth and teens are not aware of available resources that can help them achieve any goal they have. As the current director of youth programming, I get to expose youth to their endless options while retaining their interest and motivating them to come back and do the same for others.
By definition, an environment is the surrounding or condition in which a person lives or operates. On May 14, 2016, I received my executive masters of public administration from Texas-Southern University. I am the first person in my family to earn a master’s degree. Reflecting on that day in Centennial Olympic Park 20 years ago, I am proud to say: I am a product of my environment. The amount of exposure I received, along with the nurturing and care from the staff of Camp Best Friends, helped make me the person I am and inspires me to strive for better.
Samantha Terryis a Program Director for the city of Atlanta, Department of Parks and Recreation.