Alternative Programming During COVID: Renew Educational Camp

Today I’m excited to share one of the creative new programs that Renew Therapeutic Riding Center in Holland, MI, started in response to COVID’s impact on their community and center. It’s called “Renew Educational Camp” and they offer a safe place for 6th -12th graders to do their virtual schoolwork, as well as get physical activity through barn chores, horse care, volunteering in lessons, and more. I first heard about it through PATH Intl. Region 4’s monthly meeting in which Renew’s Executive Director Melissa Conner shared the program two days after it had started. She kindly agreed to let me write a post based on that presentation, so here you go! This is the story of the new program and how they created it. Most of this post is quoting her words from the meeting, with some reorganization to work in a blog post. I hope you find it inspiring in this time of trying to find alternative programming to keep our centers running and meet community needs!

Alternative Programming: Renew Educational Camp (REC)

Developing The Idea

“Like many centers we were facing the [questions] “what do we do know?” when COVID hit and everybody had to go on lock-down and “how are we going to survive”? [We used] the great resource of the virtual co-op that was online…I got in as many Region 4 zoom calls as I could…[and] were all just brainstorming what can we do, how can serve. Not just how can we stay alive and … still exist at the end of this COVID crisis but how can we even thrive in the midst of it. …

“We’re in a unique position because we just moved to a brand new facility, we built out this facility specific for what we did. …We have a beautiful new indoor arena, 20 acres pastures, all this space, and we were so excited to fully occupy every inch of space only to kind of go on lock-down mode. Coming out of [lock-down]…we took a step back to say what does the community need and how can Renew step into some of those needs? …

“I’m in a lot of Facebook groups … [and saw] the idea come across that schools might be virtual in the fall – whether by choice or by intention, whether parents specifically choose virtual schools or whether the schools decide that everyone’s going to be virtual or partially virtual – and there is this population of students, both middle school and high school, who are going to have lots of free time, and it’s not necessarily desirable for them to stare at a screen for 6-8 hours a day. So [we thought] what can we do at our center to engage them, to help them be better members of their community, to potentially show them the value of equine assisted activities and therapies, to introduce them to a more inclusive world of living with people with disabilities, to basically help them, partner with them, or walk alongside them, in their educational journey so that we provide a service to them but then they can also become a partner to us in our mission.

“So we started exploring that [idea. We talked] with some leaders of our homeschool community, some virtual school teachers, …other centers who were thinking some similar things [in different Regions]… I won’t say there’s a cookie cutter approach, we met as a staff and said what would this look like and how can we do this in our community. We sent out a poll to all of our database and we encouraged people to share it, [asking] is there interest in [such] a program… [and] we had an overwhelming positive response that there would be a need for [it].”

“We had a summer intern… and she made this her internship project – she is in therapeutic recreation – so she helped to develop the program, she put together the survey, she gathered the responses and got in touch with everybody, we ran an open house and she took ownership of that.”

The Program

Renew Educational Camp (REC) was created to be “a place for sixth to twelfth graders to do their virtual schoolwork that was a safe place – safe in terms of COVID and safe in terms of if the parents needed to go to work they didn’t worry about their kids. We were providing internet connection for them to do virtual school and space to do it. They would be with us all day, they are here from 8 am to 4 pm, and the students can choose 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 days a week to be with us.

“What we provide for them is:

  • structure to their day
  • the opportunity for them to be outside as much as possible everyday (so they can choose to do their schoolwork outside)
  • they get to adopt a horse so they can build a special relationship with [equines]
  • they participate alongside the staff in whatever chores need to happen in the day…so they’re getting some physical activity
  • we’re intentionally doing a whole section on connecting with people in the community with disabilities…so we’re doing some education on physical, cognitive, mental health, emotional challenges, and what does that look like
  • they will participate in lessons once our session gets started which is next weeks, then they will also spend at least one hour a day volunteering in a lesson
  • and then we are partnering them with a staff member and then a board member just for some kind of career development…”
  • (Renew’s website also lists:)
  • 3-4 hours of schoolwork per day
  • A riding lesson each week taught by a PATH certified instructor (guaranteed for campers signed up for 3+ days/week, as available for 1 and 2 days/week campers)
  • A faith component including weekly devotions, prayer partners, and discussions on how our equine relationships correlate with other life situations we encounter

“We made a decision in mid-August to open it up as an after school option as well, because many of the sports in MI are not happening or are happening on a very limited basis, so that just the after school hours is a portion of this program as well. So students could come just 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 days a week for just the after school section if they were not going to be with us all day.”

Alignment with Mission

Renew’s Mission: “Our mission is to enhance the well-being of individuals in our community through the physical, cognitive, and emotional benefits of therapeutic horsemanship.”

“One of the things we’ve had a lot of discussion about is our mission statement … and this program fits right along with our mission because while we primarily serve people with disabilities, the way our mission statement is written is that we help to improve peoples’ lives through therapeutic horsemanship and therefore they don’t have to have a diagnosed disability to participate in this program.”

“In fact, one of our criteria is that they are independent learners, in other words, we are not educators, we are not trying to be educators, nor do we want to be educators of middle school or high school, we just want to provide a safe space where they can do their assignments that are given to them by a teacher, a school, a parent, and they are responsible to bring their own laptop, their own resources, they bring their own lunch everyday, and we can just provide that space for them to be.”

Program Goals

Here are a few of the goals for the program that Melissa listed:

  • “to be better community minded citizens at the end of this program.”
  • “to raise their awareness of people with disabilities within their community, with the hope that they would become advocates for them”
  • “that they would understand the equine assisted activities and therapies industry so they might feel called to join our industry either as a future volunteer, staff, board member”
  • “we want them to love the farm life and get exposed to that”
  • that they be”outside as much as possible, in open fresh air, staying away from closed spaces in this time of COVID so they can be healthy, they can get the work done that they need to get done”
  • “and that at the end this will be a worthwhile time, even if only for a semester, it will [have been] something positive that happened during this time of COVID when they were not attending school every day.”

Cost

The cost of the program is listed on their website and ranges from $300 per week for 5 days a week to $75 per week for 1 day a week. Melissa points out that, “Not only are we meeting a community need, but we were trying to raise funds because we are not operating at 100% capacity. I’m guessing most peoples’ budgets look way out of whack for the year…ours does, and so we do charge for this program.”

Regarding scholarships: “One of the things about [this program] is it needs to generate revenue. We are not getting revenue as was budgeting because we’re at 50 percent capacity, so this program needs to make up the difference. We had some requests for scholarships and this is a pilot and right now we’re saying no scholarship for the pilot. Now, if it’s hugely successful and I’m able to fund-raise and demonstrate the popularity of [the program], then we could do [scholarships] if we choose to continue.”

Enrollment and Capacity

“The students applied, we did an interview, they were accepted and enrolled. … Right now for enrollment it does vary, we are not full. …We have a different number of students here each day of the week.”

“Our capacity that we set was that we would have up to 10 students, partly that’s what we could accommodate at our facility (and we have several different buildings) but [also] we wanted everybody to be able to have safe space for them to be able to do their homework throughout the day and not all be crammed into a room at one time.”

About age range: “We did wrestle with that… We [currently] do not have any middle school students registered for this program … it’s all high school students. Our minimum age to volunteer is 13. We chose middle school and up because [first] in our area those are the … [schools] that are doing all flex or all virtual offerings in our area … so we thought the need was greater there. [And second] because … one of the goals of the program is to teach them about our industry, we want them to be able to be hands on involved in lessons, so we were trying to stay in line with our own policy of minimum age of 13 to help in the arena.”

As for home school participants, “even though I reached out to home school networks and they advertised for us, we do not have any [current participants] who are home schooled. …The home school network is all relationships. … It’s like breaking into any new group, you need someone on the inside who is going to advocate for you and say yes this is legit to carry it to their network.”

One attendee asked if there was a diversity component to the application process, and Melissa replied that they did not but that would be something good to include.

Work Spaces

Melissa lists that they use their farmhouse, which has a room with tables set up for an education room in which they can have 4 participants at a time with plenty of space between them (12 feet apart) to do their schoolwork. They also have an upstairs area in one of their barns that is set up more like a youth group room with chairs and booths, that also has internet access.

Their intern structured who will be where, and who is responsible, so the participants are always supervised even though they are not always with the group of students due to the expectation that they can independently accomplish their tasks. This also depends on getting to know the students.

The Future Of The Program

Melissa says, “Since it is being run like a pilot, we will have to assess and make that decision at the end.” She said with the continued changes due to COVID, there very well could still be a need at the end of the pilot program so that it becomes a permanent program. They have had good feedback so far, with many people saying, “I wish I was younger or I wish my kids were older because how fabulous to basically do school on a horse farm!”

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed learning about Renew’s new Educational Camp program as much as I did, and that it inspires you to consider new programming for your own center in these changing times. Thank you Melissa for letting me share this!

What new programs have your centers been coming up with?

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Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgement! If you would like to contribute an activity or article, please contact me here, I would love to hear from you!

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