BY REBECCA ISENHART
SCHENECTADY — Inside a concrete classroom in Steinmetz Park, a group of kids watches as two of their peers prepare to be involved in an amazing magic trick.
Holding out their hands, they watch as magician Matias Letelier drops crumpled, torn scraps of paper into their hands and promises them if they do as he says, the papers will turn into a long ribbon.
They imitate him, balling their fists and swirling their hips in a silly ritual. Then open their hands. Nothing happens.
Letelier apologizes profusely. He tells them to shut their hands again and shout, “Alakazam!” They do. Nothing happens.
“When something goes wrong, you must not give up!” he shouts, comically collecting the paper scraps and shoving them, apparently, into his mouth. The trick works, and he seems to pull a ribbon from inside his cheek, grossing out his two volunteers by throwing it at them.
This is typical of the day camp at Steinmetz Park during the summer. Run by the Schenectady Inner City Ministry, the day camp is completely free and combines fun with inspiration and education. Letelier’s visit, complete with a bunny named Thumper peeking from a top hat, exemplifies the camp’s mission.
The day camp is in its second year, with some slight changes from 2014. There are six weeks of camp this year, up from last year’s four, but the days are slightly shorter to keep kids and their counselors from getting too worn out in the heat. The children can stay at Steinmetz Park for an afternoon camp run by the Boys and Girls Club if they need somewhere to be.
The Rev. Phil Grigsby, executive director of the Schenectady Inner City Ministry, sat at the back of the classroom and watched the inspirational magic show with a smile.
“The camp is designed to provide positive experiences for young people,” he said simply.
Ryan Cogswell, the camp’s director, said he has two objectives. One is to “communicate to every kid that God loves them,” he said. “The second is to keep their imaginations engaged when they are not in school.”
The camp at Steinmetz Park is funded by SICM, several congregations and private donations. The camp counselors are volunteers, and the county allows the program to use the park. There’s free breakfast and lunch, too. In other words, it’s a huge community effort, and it seems to be working.
“It gets me doing something over the summer,” said 11-year-old Cassiel Achan, who will be in seventh grade in the fall. “I can relax and do things I like, like crafts.”
Cassiel said she would probably spend her summer days in bed, lazing summer away, if she hadn’t signed up for camp. Instead, she’s playing sports, making friends, and expanding her creativity.
She’s writing a story, which she describes as a mix of sci-fi, romance and drama, and she talks about it with her friends at camp often, as well as her dreams of becoming a professional writer one day.
The kids also go on adventures, with weekly field trips that alternate between Camp Fowler in Speculator, Hamilton County, and other local attractions.
One recent excursion was a visit to Fox Creek Farm in Schoharie County, the same farm SICM partners with for its CSA program at Yates Village in North Schenectady. There, the kids picked green beans to take home — though Cassiel said not many of hers made it back. “We got to eat the green beans when we were picking them and they were so good,” she said. “The food was great. It just tasted so fresh.”
Next year, Cassiel will be too old to attend the camp, so she hopes she’ll be able to volunteer. She says she’ll miss the friends she’s made.
Lamonica Mosley, 12, said she’ll be disappointed to leave camp next year, as well. She, too, will be too old for the program, but her younger sisters, 10-year-old Lalysha and 9-year-old Zariah, will still attend.
Even though she won’t be back after this summer, Lamonica said the experience will stay with her.
“The first time I came, they were so nice to me,” she said. “The staff are the best.”
As she talks, about a half-dozen kids wander over. “Are you talking about the staff?” one asked, eager to get a word in about all the volunteer counselors have done to make her summer special.
If the kids leave camp feeling special, confident and ready to learn, then the summer’s message will have been received. It would be difficult not to absorb it; even the visiting magician, with his bunny and his top hat, helped to drive it home.
“Each of you has an energy inside yourselves, and when you share that energy with other people, you can do amazing things,” Letelier said while asking the kids to use their imaginations to power an illusion.