Nationally, research shows that the number of children in need of childcare far exceeds the openings available, and Oregon is no exception. But many parents locally turn to a specialized program on campus during the summer that has been in operation in some form or other since the early 1960s.
OSU KidSpirit is a unique collection of childcare programs and camps that offer a safe, education-based setting for children ages kindergarten through eighth grade. Housed in Langton Hall on the Oregon State Corvallis campus, KidSpirit serves more than 2,000 local children a year, and is open to the entire community.
KidSpirit is staffed almost entirely by Oregon State students, who are carefully trained with an emphasis on whole brain learning, mental and physical wellness skills, and a large dose of humor and playfulness. While the programs provide reinforcement and skills training for those studying education and public health, OSU students who work at KidSpirit come from a broad variety of academic backgrounds. Last year, KidSpirit employed 147 students.
Former KidSpirit camp counselor Allison Medina recently received her masters in occupational therapy school, a highly competitive and demanding program. Medina credits her time working at KidSpirit for her success in the program.
“The more time I am away from KidSpirit the more I appreciate it and miss it. I miss the supportive challenge that helped me grow into the person I am today,” Medina said. “I truly believe that no other job on campus can offer what Director Karen Swanger and KidSpirit does. I do not believe that I would have gotten myself to where I am without KidSpirit.”
KidSpirit’s biggest program is their Summer Day Camp, offered for grades kindergarten through eighth grade (with a teen offering planned soon). The camps are offered in one to two week sections, both half and full days. Campers are separated by age group, and participate in a variety of artistic, educational and active classes ranging from gymnastics to cooking to pets.
While KidSpirit is housed at Oregon State, funding is almost entirely dependent on tuition. Director Karen Swanger tries to keep tuition as low as possible, but recognizes that despite summer camps being approximately $5.70 an hour for two-week full day tuition, many staff on campus are not able to afford the camp, which can add up to almost half of some working families’ income. In the past KidSpirit has received a number of donations to fund an ongoing endowment to provide scholarships to a limited number of applicants, but the pool is still quite small, and Swanger would love to see an increase in donations to fund more scholarships for lower income families.
“We know that Oregon broadly, and Corvallis specifically, has a shortage of affordable, safe childcare options,” Swanger said, citing recent Oregon State research that shows regulated child care remains in short supply across Oregon, creating child care “deserts” in all 36 of the state’s counties. “What KidSpirit offers for parents in our community is high quality programming in a safe environment where both the children attendees and the college camp counselors benefit from each other. And the more children we can include in our programs, the better for everyone.”
In addition to summer camp, KidSpirit offers a variety of other programs, including ACES camp, which is provided on in-service and other days off during the school year, as well as “Adult Night Out” where staff offer childcare to parents who are attending OSU concert nights. There are also specialized programs for archery, gymnastics, cooking and theater, and KidSpirit can also be hired by OSU departments and colleges to provide childcare during special events.
“There’s no other program locally that tailors itself so well to the complex needs of working parents,” Swanger said. “We understand how hard it is to find safe and reliable childcare options where you can be assured your children are engaged and active.”
Swanger said the number of children KidSpirit is serving who have special needs, especially autism and other spectrum-related issues, is increasing, and her staff is being trained to address those needs.
“This past year we fully integrated mental health throughout all aspects of our program,” Swanger said. “Through our staff trainings, we aim to provide our student workers the professional skills needed to be successful on the job. These trainings also provide many life and mental health skills to be successful both at work and in their personal lives. Staff report their coping skills are higher, and youth attending camp are learning new skills from the staff.”
Parents frequently contact Swanger to note their appreciation for KidSpirit as a program that doesn’t turn away or underserve those children.
“The staff at the Kidspirit program at OSU have consistently gone out of their way to provide quality, ethically conducted, and concerned child-care for both of my daughters, including my autistic daughter,” a parent wrote. “The counselors were always professional, always concerned, and always willing to work with me (and other parents) if any issue would arise. The classes provided structure (not just lackluster observation) and consisted of a combination of both physical fitness and classroom education.”
Swanger is especially excited that KidSpirit will soon be pairing with the Old Mill Center thanks to a PacificSource grant, which will allow them to provide skills trainers which will offer direct services for youth attending KidSpirit.
Because KidSpirit is so dependent on tuition, Swanger said continuing to staff and provide strong programming while keeping the program affordable is a delicate balance. Ideally she’d like to have more support from the university for program operations as well as fundraising opportunities. For now, she is committed to keeping the program thriving and raising awareness among the Corvallis community that KidSpirit is here to serve all children, as well as giving Oregon State camp counselors the chance to thrive as well.
Former camp counselor Madeleine Selfors said her KidSpirit experience assured her that education was the right career choice.
“Young kids have a way of seeing life in an utterly beautiful way that everyone should learn from just as I did,” Selfors said. “Because of KidSpirit, I know that teaching is the right career path for me and I now know that I have the skill, and motivation, to reach my goal of inspiring future students, and coworkers, in a positive and productive school environment.”
Parents can still register their children for camps this summer. To find out more about the programs offered through KidSpirit, visit https://kidspirit.oregonstate.edu/