Snowmass program builds character in kids
It’s Friday afternoon, and kids are screaming and running all over the Snowmass Chapel grounds. They just got done eating ice cream, and now they are spooning whipped cream onto plates and throwing them at their teen counselors’ faces.
It might look like all fun and games, but what the kids might not realize is they’re part of a program designed to build their character throughout their childhood and adolescense. The kids are participating in Camp SmashBox, the flagship program of Project 18, which was launched in Snowmass Village in January.
“Project 18 is sort of the umbrella of all these different programs that we do,” said program director Charla Belinski. “All of the different programs focus on basically raising kids with great character and helping them to become the most successful that they can be by the time they’re 18 and launching out into the world on their own.”
Some of those other programs include life-planning classes, wilderness trips and after-school faith-formation classes. Although the Snowmass Chapel has funded it for the first year and provided facilities for the program’s use, Project 18 is its own entity and is not an entirely religious program.
“Some of the programs do focus on spirituality,” Belinski said. “There’s a lot of stuff that we do that’s completely nonreligious. … Everything we do is focused on that idea of building kids with character.”
About 400 kids have participated in Project 18 activities since January, Belinski said. Project 18 focuses on seven aspects of character development: leadership, service, mentorship opportunities, character, wellness, faith and fun.
“Just using SmashBox as an example, kids come when they’re little, by sixth grade they’re starting to be junior counselors, by middle school they’re getting paid something, and by high school they’re full-fledged working,” said Kara Gilbert, camp director and summer counselor. “So they’re going through the program, and a lot of our other programs are designed that way.”
Some children participate in Project 18 activities consistently through the year, while others attend one event or come to a camp while visiting Snowmass Village, Belinski said. For those who stay involved through high school, a scholarship fund has been set up that will start with the graduating class of 2016.
“That’s a scholarship opportunity to say, ‘Hey, I’ve really developed in all these areas that you guys said I should,’” Belinski said.
A scholarship committee independent of Project 18 will select the recipients. The amount and number of scholarships to be awarded hasn’t been determined yet, Belinski said.
Project 18 also has an advisory council of 11 different community members. Funding has allowed Project 18 to get more staff involved and provide the opportunities it has, Belinski said.
“And that’s going to be our biggest challenge going forward is the fundraising effort to keep it going,” Belinski said.
Project 18 is able to operate on a budget of $200,000 because the chapel donates the space and other operational costs, Belinski said. Some programs are free and others, like Camp SmashBox, charge a fee, but scholarships are available for families who need assistance to attend.
“Anyone who’s asked has gotten as much as they need,” Gilbert said.
This fall, Project 18 is planning to offer a life-planning class at Aspen Middle School. All the Project 18 staff members — who also include Gilbert’s husband, Adam, also a camp director and summer counselor, and the chapel’s Rev. Robert de Wetter — are certified to teach the class, which Belinksi said is “a nationally acclaimed course helping kids identify their values and some of the pitfalls and challenges in life that maybe get in the way of them living out their values.”
Last spring semester, Project 18 also helped sponsor Corey Ciochetti, an ethics professor at the University of Denver, to speak to Aspen High School students and, in a separate event, school parents. Project 18 partnered with the school district and the Aspen Education Foundation to make that happen. The entities hope to produce a series bringing two to three speakers a year to the schools, Belinski said.
First Saturday Club, an extension of Camp SmashBox during the school year, will also start back up this fall.
“It’s kind of to give parents a break and free babysitting,” Gilbert said. “And then we ask that they teach their kids about service, so kids are coming and … handing us their donation that goes to the cause of the week.”
Last year First Saturday Club participants raised about $3,000 for various causes, Gilbert said. She hopes this year to choose one cause for the event to unite around throughout the year.
In addition to being counselors for Camp SmashBox, high school students can participate in the Teen Advisory Council, which this summer created a Kindergarten Readiness Camp. Gilbert told the teens that many children in the Roaring Fork Valley don’t have access to preschool, and the council members wanted to start one.
“Well darn if they didn’t do it all by themselves,” Belinski said.
Gilbert helped set up meetings with Basalt and Aspen elementary schools, and the teens created a week-long camp that prepared 5-year-olds for a school setting, including thing like how to stand in a line, how to sit in a circle and listen, how to take turns, Gilbert said. The camp was entirely free, too.
“The kids were so sweet, they’re excited to go to kindergarten so they were excited to be quiet,” Gilbert said. “And the high schoolers are really excited to build that program next year.”
Kristin Craig, whose daughters Bailey and Millie Everhart have been involved in chapel programs for years, said her daughters are more self-assured thanks to their experiences.
“Kara (Gilbert) herself has just been another mentor,” Craig said. “I’m OK with the fact that sometimes you don’t want to talk to your mom about something. Just knowing that Kara is another person that I respect her opinions, I respect her beliefs, and that my daughter can go to her for another source of support.”
Katrina Johnson, whose three oldest children attended Camp SmashBox this summer, shared that sentiment.
“I hope that later on when they do run into problems and they do need some guidance they have someone to talk to, because they’re not going to run to me,” Johnson said. “Seeing that they’re building that type of network for kids, to have that I think is just wonderful for kids to grow up with something like that.”
Johnson said her family attends chapel services sometimes but that that’s not why her kids attend SmashBox. The Johnsons recenlty moved to the valley from California and have no extended family here, and Johnson said Project 18 provides a network of support for them.
“It’s just a support group to raise children,” Johnson said. “It takes a village to raise kids. It gives me that other part that I can’t provide. … I must say if it would be more religious I probably would be a little more turned off.”
Craig said Millie, who’s starting eighth grade, will likely continue in the program through high school.
“They’ve created such an environment that it’s fun, it’s accepting, it’s powerful, and I think what’s really cool is she knows it’s good for her, I’ve never had to say, ‘Oh you gotta go do this,’” Craig said.
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The Aspen Camp of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing has received a $5,000 grant from the Rocky Mountain Health Foundation that will help the Old Snowmass camp offer a winter retreat for adults who are deaf or hard of hearing.