UTD hosts week-long camp for underprivileged children

A crowd of kids, chattering and giggling, hold on to white balloons with the words “Let Go” scrawled on them. They wait for the go-ahead and, then, release the fear and self-doubt filling the balloon. From June 24 to June 27, they spent their time on campus instead of at the shelters they call home.

Sonia Denice de La Torre, children’s book author and public speaker, led the children through the symbolic ceremony.

“Because of the circumstances and where they come from, some of these kids are facing violent situations in the home, yet, look at the smile and joy that’s in their hearts,” de La Torre said. “They’re excited; they’re not considering their circumstances. They’re looking at their future and what it could be.”

Organized by Rainbow Days, a Dallas non profit and child support group, Kid’s University invited children from homeless shelters in Dallas and Collin Counties to experience college for a week.

They participated in classes focusing on computer skills and engineering, among other subjects.

The Perot Museum presented a science class and Michele Hanlon, associate professor and assistant director of the arts, treated the kids to a dance presentation.

The children also attended a one-on-one pre-algebra class taught by Dean of Interdisciplinary Studies George Fair, as well as volunteering undergraduate students.

Interdisciplinary studies senior Valeria Sainz taught at the day camp two years ago and returned this year to help the children learn essential math skills.

Originally from Mexico, Sainz hopes to become a teacher one day, possibly working with underprivileged children.

“Where I come from, education is really hard to get,” Sainz said. “I know how hard it is for some kids to get an education, so it’s definitely something I think about. If I were to go in that route, it would be really rewarding.”

Kid’s University started in 1996 when Rainbow Days partnered with Fair, and he said rising homeless rates, especially among women and children in Dallas, were a main factor in creating the camp.

“At that time, I’d still been working with school districts and shelters where homeless children resided,” Fair said. “As I worked with shelters, I began to understand that during the summertime, because there is no school, the students are pretty much idle at the shelters with not much space and not much for them to do.”

Eighteen years later and homeless populations in Dallas are on the rise again. Kid’s University had its largest turnout this year with 135 children attending their first week camp and 165 children attending the second week.

Kelly Wierzbinski, director of Children, Youth and Family Services for Rainbow Days, said the demographic of the homeless population has changed in recent years with families with children being the fastest growing group.

“What I’m seeing now, more and more, because of economic times is that these are people with college degrees,” Wierzbinski said. “They’re losing income and they really need help. The times are falling hard on just about everybody.”

Having been with Rainbow Days for 23 years, Wierzbinski sees firsthand the positive impact the camp can have on the children participating.

“One child was in the program, and they were living in a shelter where a family member was living with AIDS,” Wierzbinski said. “She was a participant in the camp when she was seven years old. We saw her for maybe five years, but she moved out of the shelter. She’s actually going to college now, and came back to teach one of the science classes.”

Wierzbinski said Rainbow Days is always looking for students to volunteer.

As leaders and role models, college students can help give kids the positive feedback that they need while coping with a highly stressful situation, she said.

“We wanted it to be on a college campus, especially because a lot of the parents here today get tears in their eyes because they didn’t even graduate high school,” Wierzbinski said.  “To see their children in cap and gowns and to see the possibility of them stopping that cycle of homelessness is so important.”

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