IOWA/LEXINGTON: Reading camps help lift kids out of poverty

August 29, 2008

If kids can't read, they can't excel.

It was that simple premise that led the Diocese of Lexington (Kentucky) to create a summer reading camp seven years ago. Now the Diocese of Iowa has picked up the idea.

The Lexington and Iowa programs are examples of Episcopal Church Jubilee Ministries, a network of more than 600 social justice ministries at the local and diocesan levels, coordinated by the office of Jubilee Ministries at the Episcopal Church Center in New York.

The Kentucky program was the brainchild of Bishop Stacy Sauls of Lexington. The diocese had a long history of offering summer camps for children, but he felt the camps should focus on reading.

"You know about the connection between poverty and education," says Bungee Bynum, executive director of the summer reading camp program for the diocese. "The bishop charged us at our diocesan convention to do something about the great need of ministry and mission in our diocese. Eastern Kentucky is home to 14 of the poorest counties in the United States."

The National Institute for Literacy estimates that about 43% of adults with low-level reading and writing skills live in poverty. And about 70% of adult welfare recipients are poor readers, another study shows.
What's more, students who struggle to master reading are far more likely to drop out of school. And high school dropouts are three times as likely to go on public assistance as are high school graduates.

Early intervention, however, can change that seemingly inevitable arc of poverty. In Kentucky, the parishes involved in the reading camp work with their local school districts to identify third and fourth graders who are struggling readers. "They're the kids in danger of dropping out," Bynum says. "If they're not reading by third grade, they're probably not going to."

The camp, which is free to campers, features personalized intense reading instruction for three hours every morning, followed by fun activities in the afternoon.

There aren't any tests. But come fall and the start of school, many of the children are finally reading at grade level. "We have a ton of success stories," Bynum said.

Literacy camp idea travels to Iowa
Nearly 600 miles away from Lexington, Leslee Sandberg had just retired in 2006 as a special education administrator for an education agency in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Sandberg is also the Diocesan Jubilee Officer for the Diocese of Iowa, and runs the Jubilee Ministry program at Christ Episcopal Church in Cedar Rapids. Christ Church has a large social outreach program, encompassing everything from co-sponsorship of a food pantry to a prison ministry to an advocacy program to train parishioners to lobby for more compassionate public policy.

In 2006, Sandberg and a friend attended the Jubilee Triennial Gathering in Los Angeles. That national gathering brought together representatives of Jubilee Ministries from across the country. "One of the wonderful things that happened there was the networking," said Sandberg. My friend and I happened to pick up a brochure from Lexington about their Summer Reading Camp."

By chance, Sandberg found herself seated at lunch with two women from Lexington. They told her more about the reading camps, and how they had evolved into one of the diocese's major ministries, with 150 volunteers serving 175 children, and a budget of $110,000.

"We thought hard about that," Sandberg said. "We thought, 'What can we do here?'"

Christ Episcopal Church decided to start small. Last year, parishioners got a local elementary school to identify 12 students who might benefit from some summer reading instruction. The church identified 12 mentors willing to work with the students.

They partnered with Coe College, located in Cedar Rapids, for a three-day camp. The college provided classrooms for morning reading instruction, plus access to its swimming pool and rock climbing wall. And in the afternoons, professors came to do some science demonstrations.

"It was wildly successful," Sandberg said. "Remember, these are kids who would not be really likely to be on a college campus otherwise. Two or three of them said it was the experience of a lifetime for them."

The church decided it was an experience worth repeating. At the same time, Christ Church coincidentally had a couple transfer their membership from the Diocese of Lexington.

Mimi Arnspiger had been a camp director in Lexington for many years and she was close friends with Bynum.

"I wasn't even aware the church was planning to do this," said Arnspiger, who had taken a job at Coe College. "But when I heard they were planning to do a second camp, I said 'I have a friend who has done wonderful work with reading camps in Lexington, and I'd be glad to share ideas.' Well, it's just taken off. The way they do it in Lexington would be a model for any diocese to try because they've got it down to a science."

This year, the second annual Christ Episcopal Church/Coe College Summer Reading Camp ran for four days in July. The reading coaches all donated their time. So did the professors. Coe College donated its facilities. Sandberg estimates the total cost to the church will be $1,500, which will pay for books and other materials, provide lunches for the campers and counselors, and hire a lifeguard to watch the children while they're swimming.

"It's pretty economical," Sandberg said. "I'd encourage any other Jubilee Ministry who wanted to do this to find a nearby college and approach them with the idea. Usually during summer months they don't have college students around, so their facilities might be open. It just takes work, and lots of planning ahead of time."

The literacy camp model is also being studied by half a dozen other dioceses in the U.S. and churches as far away as South Africa.

To learn more about creating a summer reading camp, contact Bungee Bynum, director of the Lexington program, at 859-252-6527 or email him at Read more about the camp at the program's website,

For more information about the Christ Episcopal Church/Coe College Summer Reading Camp, e-mail Iowa DJO Leslee Sandberg at

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