Yspaniola has been working to provide access to quality education in Batey Libertad since 2010. In over five years of community-based education initiatives, and with extensive community feedback, we’ve had plenty of opportunities to fail and learn from our mistakes. For the “fail forward” contest, we’d like to share one such failure from the past year.
Yspaniola works year-round with over 120 children from Batey Libertad providing supplementary literacy education in our Learning Center, with the goal of providing comprehensive and holistic education from pre-school through university. By teaching students to read and write effectively as well as think critically, we seek to not only increase access to social and economic opportunity, but also to provide students with the skills they will need to advocate for themselves and their community.
Children in Batey Libertad face manifold barriers to education—work and responsibilities inside and out of the home, lack of proper nutrition and healthcare, lack of documentation, and institutional racism. Yspaniola seeks to address and counteract these obstacles through community education programs. But these barriers also mean that children in Batey Libertad have few opportunities to play and explore new interests in a supportive environment. With this in mind, Yspaniola staff and community members put their heads together to design the Batey Libertad Summer Camp.
Yspaniola’s Summer Camp first took place in 2012, and has been a much-anticipated event every year since. In addition to providing a fun, encouraging environment for our students during the summer months, the Summer Camp’s goal is to empower young adults in Batey Libertad. Through summer camp, young people not formally involved in Yspaniola programming—adolescents who are too old for our Learning Center, which enrolls 117 children ages 4 to 15—can gain much-needed work experience and practice leadership skills. After training in effective teamwork, professional etiquette, and classroom and behavior management, Summer Camp Volunteers are ready! Guided by Summer Camp young-adult volunteers, children learn about HIV/AIDS prevention and positive self-esteem, play fútbol and complete obstacle courses, dance Dominican bachata and make their own maracas, take on new personas in theatrical skits, and construct and paint Carnaval masks.
Summer Camp has been very popular in Batey Libertad, generating positive feedback from both volunteers and children. Students now begin to ask about Camp early in the spring and argue throughout the year about who really won the end-of-camp competition between camper groups. Most impressive has been the continued growth in enthusiasm from young adults in the community. When we opened the application process in May 2015, over 40 adolescents and young adults in the community expressed interest in participating as counselors, activity leaders, or assistants. Eager to support young people’s initiative to help their community, we found a way for everyone interested to participate. We added more counselors to each group, more assistants, and more activities. Since behavior management had been one of the most difficult tasks for counselors in the past, it seemed like having more committed adults involved in each activity could be a big help and our young-adult-to-child ratio was fantastic—almost 1-3!
As Summer Camp kicked off, however, it became clear our large and enthusiastic team was too much for our capacity. We had set out to provide work and leadership experience to young adults in the community, but found that we were simply unable to provide the kind of tailored support that our camp volunteers needed to excel and hone their own professional skills. Our training, designed to allow volunteers to think about and practice for potentially difficult situations during camp, became unmanageable with over 40 volunteers. During camp, with an excess of volunteers, many young adults became distracted and did not motivate themselves to remain engaged with students during camp activities. Discord emerged in various sub-teams as some volunteers saw their colleagues not pulling their weight. Our camp directors supervised, gave feedback, and intervened where necessary, but there was not the time or capacity to actively address every problem and teaching moment.
Summer Camp still accomplished many of its original goals: children arrived early each morning, eager and attentive, and left each day exhausted and happy. Certain volunteers stood out within a large team as shining stars—committed to the task, infectious in their enthusiasm, and consistently professional. But others seemedto grow little if at all from the Summer Camp counselor experience, falling through the cracks of a large group.
Ultimately, we recognized that in Summer Camp we had failed our young-adult volunteers by trying to include as many people as possible, and we were therefore unable to provide a well-structured, positive learning experience for all of the counselors. We realized that for volunteers to truly learn and employ the complex host of professional and educational skills required by Summer Camp, more is not necessarily better. Rather than providing opportunities to as many young people as possible, we could better serve the community by putting more resources into fewer volunteers.
In 2015, we’ve resolved to realign Batey Libertad Summer Camp with Yspaniola’s goals.In the coming year, we will partner with community members to make the difficult choices about who is best qualified to participate in Summer Camp and devote more organizational resources to training and support before, during, and after camp to ensure that our Summer Camp volunteers have the opportunity for learning and growth they deserve.
Our failure this past year in Summer Camp has taught us a lesson that will also guide the rest of our programming. While we strive for inclusivity in our programs and hope to serve as many people as possible, we recognize that our resources cannot reach everyone effectively. When there is a choice between adding more to our programs or improving current initiatives, we are better off creating excellent opportunities and later expanding them rather than stretching our resources thin for the sake of inclusivity. This year, Yspaniola looks forward to more growth, learning, fun—and even failure!