UMass Amherst Helping to Plan Kids Camp in Rural Virginia Focusing on African-American Heritage

AMHERST, Mass. - Arthur S. Keene, a University of Massachusetts anthropologist, is leading a team designing a curriculum focusing on African-American heritage and culture, to be used during a two-week summer camp for disadvantaged youths in rural Virginia. Keene, who is also co-director of the UMass Citizen-Scholars program, received a $3,000 "Project Engage" grant to fund the effort, from the New England Resource Center for Higher Education (NERCHE).

The project will expand on an existing relationship between the University and the community of New Road, part of the town of Exmore, Virginia. Along with Keene, UMass students Stephanie Evans, Tania Mitchell, and Kara Volpicelli spent several days in August in the community, talking with parents and community leaders about what their priorities are for the camp. "Public institutions have an obligation to serve, and we''ve taken that mandate seriously," said Keene.

For the past three years, UMass students involved in the service-learning courses, "Grassroots Community Development" and "Leadership and Activism" have been partners with rural black communities on Virginia''s Eastern Shore, in a variety of community development projects. Those projects have included alternative spring breaks, in which UMass students have done community service projects during their mid-semester vacation, and reverse spring break, in which youths from New Road stayed at the UMass campus for a week.

UMass and New Road participants alike hope that the camp will feature activities including arts, music, drama, dance, and children''s literature. "In the arts, we could teach the kids to make batik T-shirts, and learn about the role of batik in African society. We''d also like to have a music program, in which we could consider everything from spirituals to the blues," Keene said. There are also plans to have a story hour each day, during which youths would listen to some of the "enormously rich children''s literature" that focuses on the African-American experience.

In addition to setting up a plan for heritage-related camp activities, the UMass team also hopes to establish a relationship between the community and a historically black college, and to plan field trips that will teach youngsters about the region''s cultural and natural history.

NERCHE is funded by foundations and charitable trusts, and is based at the Graduate College of Education at UMass Boston.

Arthur Keene can be reached at 413/253-3421 or