Shawna Rosenzweig is Camp Fire’s Chief Strategy Officer and a long-time advocate for afterschool programs. She recently joined the board of the National Afterschool Association and has a lot to say about the benefits of afterschool programs. The Camp Fire blog team sat down (ok, Zoomed) with Shawna to get her insight on why afterschool programs are an essential part of our organization’s toolbox.
Camp Fire: What was your first experience with afterschool programs?
Shawna: One of my former teachers ran an afterschool sports program and asked if I wanted to help out to earn some extra money. That was my very first intro to afterschool programs. I discovered the relationships you can build with young people—and the relationships young people can build with each other. In college, I also had a job working at an afterschool program, but I didn’t know it could be a career. I was planning on becoming a teacher, but right after college, I came across an opportunity to work for an out-of-school-time program. I thought: Wow, you can work with kids in a lot of other ways besides in the classroom. That job introduced me to the wider field and got me thinking about how to build high-quality, intentional programs.
Camp Fire: Was there a moment when you realized afterschool programs were going to be a focus of your career?
Shawna: Once when I was home from college, I was catching up with my former role model who gave me my first afterschool job. My mentor happened to mention that they thought the worst thing that could happen to one of their own kids would be being gay. At the time, I was questioning my own sexuality. It was a pivotal moment for me. This was a very negative experience with someone who had previously had a positive impact on my life. I realized I wanted the power to create amazing, supportive spaces for young people where they can be their full selves. That really brought me into the field.
Camp Fire: Why are afterschool programs an important part of Camp Fire’s mission?
Shawna: Camp Fire afterschool programs are designed to meet the needs of young people and their communities by doing three things: help young people build connections to their full sense of self, help them build connections to others (adults, peers, community), and help them build connections to the outdoors. The programs look different depending on where they are and who they are serving. They could be held at school or at an outside location. They can be a small group or club-based model or—especially for older youth—they can be organized around social action or social justice issues. At their core, though, are those three elements of connection to self, others and the outdoors.
Camp Fire: What benefits does that kind of connection bring to young people’s lives?
Shawna: In light of COVID isolation, the opportunity to be growing socially and emotionally and be connecting in those ways is huge. Afterschool programs give young people the opportunity to learn SEL [social-emotional learning] or soft skills beyond what you get in the classroom. They also offer a chance for academic enrichment and support; they can accelerate learning that might have slowed during the pandemic. Finally, afterschool programs can give young people an opportunity to grapple with the issues they are seeing in the news and experiencing in real life—from racial justice to climate change. These programs give young people an avenue to take action now and amplify their voices. Afterschool programs give youth a real opportunity to lead and make decisions about the programs’ content and processes. Young people have been in such positions of powerlessness—because of both systems of oppression and COVID isolation—and these programs offer a space for them to have control and express themselves in positive ways.
Camp Fire: How do afterschool programs serve the wider community?
Shawna: I think the benefits are wide reaching. Camp Fire afterschool programs help kids make a positive social impact by helping them grow into environmental stewards, engaged citizens and dynamic leaders. People who build vibrant, healthy communities. The SEL skills young people gain in afterschool programs will make them best-suited for the workforce of the future. But the benefits are also immediate: When a young person is thriving or flourishing — that helps everyone around them. Society as a whole works better when young people have opportunities to feel emotionally supported and support their own mental health.
Want to learn more about the challenges afterschool programs face—and how you can help? Read our companion blog post: Almost 25 million kids are waiting to get into an afterschool program