Hundreds of Atlantic City kids this year got their first ever taste of city-run summer camps. Now the city is looking to make sure it can replicate the experience next year as well as expand its recreation services to seniors and other underserved residents.
Years of financial difficulties and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic meant that Atlantic City was unable to staff a recreation department. This spring, however, the city began hiring to build out its youth services, senior services and multicultural offices. Mayor Marty Small said this had been a passion of his and he had been determined since taking office to make more services available to both young people and senior citizens in Atlantic City. Small also wanted available activities to go beyond sports, he said. “Yes, being an athlete is great, but one day those days are over,” Small, a former college basketball player, said. “We wanted to focus on all children, and give them an opportunity.” The city received a $1.5 million anti-violence grant from the state and put some of that money to work running the programs. Small said that while by August last year there had been nine deaths due to gun violence in the city, this year to date there have been none.
Small hopes to expand the camps for next summer and to provide more free services for everyone in the city year-round. Although funding is not yet in place to run camps next summer, the city is confident it will be. “No parent under this administration will be able to say there’s nothing for kids to do in Atlantic City,” Small said. “That just won’t happen.”
The free programs this July included an NFL Flag Football camp every Friday, as well as an all-sports recreation camp, a youth services camp and a multicultural camp that ran Monday-Thursday afternoons. There was also a swimming program run by a local nonprofit. The camps were held at different neighborhood schools, so that parents and guardians whose children were enrolled in the morning-only summer school program would have childcare through the afternoon.
Although Small’s wife is the superintendent of the Atlantic City school district, city officials said they had to coordinate with the school board and apply for permission to use the school buildings. This was no small task, since all of Atlantic City’s school facilities including playgrounds, sports fields and swimming pools are closed to Atlantic City students outside of school hours and the school district has long been reticent to open its facilities to provide non-school services. The camp kids, however, appreciated the access to the air-conditioned gyms and auditoriums and parents appreciated knowing their kids were safe inside familiar buildings.
The turnout for the camps was impressive: 300 children registered for the sports camps and the Whelan’s Whales swimming program had 100 students as well as a waitlist of another 100. The smaller multi-cultural and youth services camps were also oversubscribed. Outreach in Atlantic City can be a challenge because of language barriers but Tasha Devonish, assistant director of youth services, said the city worked hard to get the word out about the camps in the two months between the end of April and June, when registration began. “We utilized social media, word of mouth, we passed out flyers. We knocked on doors, we walked through the neighborhoods, we went into stores,” Devonish said.
The city’s recreation department is now working in collaboration with the school district to offer more sports to children. Before this summer, school sports teams only existed at the high school level but now there are soccer and basketball teams for middle-school-aged students and the city’s Jarrod Barnes hopes to make more sports available. “We want to be able to bring baseball, soccer, lacrosse, pickleball…Pickleball is huge now,” he said.
The youth services and multi-cultural services departments are also working on fall and spring activities, while the city’s department of senior services will host its first senior boat ride day on Monday. Plans for weekly zumba classes are in the works, too.
(Paragraph two of this article was edited on August 22 to reflect the correct size of the anti-violence grant received by the city)