Children’s Fresh Air Farm: “These kids deserve this.”

Perhaps nothing makes me more nostalgic for my childhood than memories of summers filled with library books, adventures in the great outdoors, and summer camp. Yet many kids in our society never get to experience these privileges. And what about kids who don’t even have a safe place to play outside or enough food to eat? How do they fill their summer vacation?

Last Tuesday, I was fortunate to meet Gini Williams, the director of the Children’s Fresh Air Farm, a ministry of Independent Presbyterian Church (IPC). She gave me a tour of their summer kids’ academic camp in Bluff Park. The camp serves 34 rising second graders from Whatley and Gibson elementaries who participated in IPC’s STAIR Literacy Program. Campers receive rigorous academic instruction, enrichment activities – and breakfast and lunch – all funded and supported by the church congregation.

Building relationships with those they serve

Campers formed relationships with church members during the school year as participants in their literacy tutoring program, and church members wanted to ensure the students stayed up-to-speed throughout the summer. IPC partnered with the BELL Accelerated Summer Learning Program to design a curriculum that would cover reading, writing, and math, while leaving time for fun activities and recreation in the afternoons.

The church provides daily transportation to the Children’s Fresh Air Farm, a sprawling site tucked away in Bluff Park. It was founded in the 1920s as an overnight camp to get children out of the polluted city air at a time when Birmingham was dominated by the steel industry, and the camp is still an idyllic retreat from the surrounding urban and suburban sprawl.


Responding to community needs

Fresh Air Farm has always been a place where inner-city children from high-poverty areas can experience fresh air and open spaces in a fun camp atmosphere. Over the years, however, the needs of the communities they serve have changed, and IPC listened and responded to those needs.

With summer vacation shrinking, fewer kids were able to commit to sleep-away camps for weeks at a time. Plus, it became clear that many children could benefit from rigorous academic enrichment to bring them up to grade level. IPC found that a day camp could better serve their campers – and so far, it has been a smashing success. 34 of 40 families who were invited to participate enrolled for the 5 week camp, which lasts from 8 to 4:30, Monday through Friday. There was no cost for any family to participate.

Rigorous instruction

Their new learning camp features a morning of academic classes focused on reading, writing and mathematics, taught by licensed, professional teachers. Each classroom is headed by two instructors, so students get extensive one-on-one contact with their teachers. Afternoons feature enrichment activities including music, dance, drama, art, science, Spanish lessons (to bridge cultural divides with Latino students), recreational activities, Christian-focused bible study, and worship in the chapel.

“I’m so excited about all the partnerships we’ve formed this year with community organizations,” says Gini. They host a science teacher from the McWane Science center each week, as well as a gardener from Jones Valley Urban Farm. A church member who is a professional tennis instructor gives the kids tennis lessons, while other church members offer swimming and soccer instruction. Numerous other congregants who have talents and knowledge to offer interact with the kids on a regular basis, while literacy tutors make sure to maintain relationships with their former students.

Every Friday they bring speakers in to talk with the children or take field trips to sites around Birmingham, including the Birmingham Museum of Art, the McWane Science Center, the Civil Rights Institute, and Jones Valley Urban Farms. They recently registered campers for library cards from the Avondale public library; each camper will receive a “License to Read” full of incentives to get involved with innovative library programming.

A place of their own

The camp’s main office is a converted residential space, which offers a homey atmosphere where kids can curl up with books in comfy, overstuffed chairs during afternoon break time. The auxiliary buildings offer all the fixtures of a summer sleep-away camp – bunk cabins, a cafeteria, a pool, a basketball court, a playground, and even a zipline!

“This is such an amazing space,” I said, surveying a huge open lawn surrounded by ancient shade trees, the extensive recreational space, and the walls of books and artwork in the main house. Gini agreed with me, and added “This facility on par with the kind of camp that only affluent kids could normally afford.”

“And these kids deserve this. They deserve all of this.” Gini pauses before going on. “They really deserve better than what they’re getting.”


Eating, growing, and digging in the dirt

In the garden behind the house, the kids tend individual plots growing tomatoes, radishes, carrots, and other plants. Jones Valley Urban Farm’s Seed to Plate program educates campers about growing food and eating healthy. “These kids have never seen cauliflower before,” Gini said to me. “One of our girls called it ‘white broccoli.’ It’s so exciting to teach them new things.”

Children often don’t eat fresh foods at home, and some of the kids may not even have much to eat after after they leave camp at 4:30. Campers get a full breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snack Monday through Friday. “We notice the ones who go back for seconds and thirds at lunch. We try to make sure they get plenty to eat.” During a recent cook out, she remembers, “Some of the girls ate 3 or 4 hamburgers… you have to wonder what they’re getting to eat at home.”

Modeling behavior

“Many of the kids have discipline problems. Anger is a big issue.” As camp director, Gini deals with behavioral problems in a firm but loving way. I noticed character building lessons integrated throughout the camp. They teach the kids to “bless those who curse you” and to show love to their neighbors. One Bible verse reads: A fool gives vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control (Proverbs 29:11).

But Gini tells me she has witnessed kids’ behavior transform in their weeks at camp. “During their first week here, many kids were saying things like ‘I’m going to shoot you’ or ‘I’m going to kill you’ to each other. Now I see them acting more like children – they’re carefree. They’re so sweet! They see the way our teachers and our youth volunteers act, and they are always hugging and loving on us.

“One child asked me ‘Why are you so nice to me?’ At first I didn’t understand the question.” Gini knows that some kids come from some difficult home environments.

“I don’t want to be corny,” Gini laughs, but “I want this to be a safe space. Every child deserves that.” In their classrooms, children collect stickers for good behavior. “I think a lot of kids are used to getting yelled at in the classroom. We use a lot of positive reinforcement here.”

Engaging environments

Each day, once camper gets a “Scholar of the Day” award to recognize excellence in the classroom. “You would not believe how excited they are to be get this award. It’s just like they won Mr. or Miss USA!”

Gini also goes out of her way to integrate lessons from the classroom into other camp activities. “I try to make every part of this camp interactive. For example, if I hear a teacher or Bible study leader use a word the kids don’t know, I will make it a vocabulary lesson. We have this ‘Cow Word Bank.’ I told the kids that Cow only knows one word – ‘Moo.’ We have to teach Cow new words. It helps the kids remember.”

Recently, Cow learned the word “College.” “It’s really never too early to get them thinking about it!” says Gini.


Campers’ swimsuits hang to dry in the pool house. Former campers decorated the walls

Sustaining relationships, expanding impact

Gini hopes the camp will be able to double its capacity next year, bringing this year’s campers back while accepting a new group of rising 2nd graders. “This is our pilot year. We just don’t know how big this could get, but we have great hopes for the future.” She is also committed to measuring the effectiveness of the camp with standardized tests to show student progress. “I want to know that this is a good thing that is really helping them. I don’t want to just say it is a good thing for them just because I feel like it might be.”

Program participants completed a nationally normed test to assess reading and math abilities before starting camp, and they will re-test again at the end of camp. This will help IPC and Bell evaluate their programming and adjust if needed. That said, Gini knows that the camp is making a difference. “I think the camp is great for the kids, with or without the added value of rigorous academic enrichment. We’re exposing them to new things. We’re building relationships. We’re showing them that we love them.” And Gini notes, “We are all blessed by this too.”

Call it a hunch, but I have a feeling these kids are going to be better prepared when they go back to school next month. The church is investing their time, energy, and money into this program, and the rewards are manifold. Who can put a price on that?

Do you know of a community partnership or ministry that we could feature? Please let us know what’s happening in your community! Email rhyden@alabamapoverty.org to share your stories.

Posted by Robyn Hyden

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22 Responses to “Children’s Fresh Air Farm: “These kids deserve this.””

  1. Robyn- thank you for the beautiful article. I look forward to sharing more with you as we grow and learn – lots of love, Gini

  2. As a former CFAF counselor, it is wonderful to see the current use of the camp. It certainly holds a special place in my heart.

  3. Vernon Britton says:

    Forty two years ago I was introduced to the Children’s Fresh Air Farm. My two years of working there means the world to me. The program “worked” then and it “works” now. Congratulations on the new mission and continued community support.

  4. Diane Higginbotham Ray says:

    I am so excited for all concerned–especially the members of Independent Presbyterian Church who put their faith in this endeavor and must be be beaming with excitement over the results thus far. I, too, have many cherished memories of the Children’s Fresh Air Farm where I worked for 5 years as a Counselor and Pool Director. It was probably the most rewarding time of my life, where many friendships became reality and a multitude of learning processes developed that truly helped me become a successful teacher in Public Education. Best wishes and good luck to all concerned!!

  5. Virginia says:

    As a member of IPC, I’ve seen this program in action. Gini and her staff are doing a wonderful , wonderful job. These campers are thriving under their loving care. I’m so proud to have been able to witness it first hand. I hope it continues to grow in years to come.

  6. Robert Vaught says:

    I was at the fresh air farm in the early 70’s and it was the best time of my life the memories i made there will never leave my mind and it’s good to know it’s still there all these years later for kids to enjoy please never go away the kids need all the help they can get now days . YOURS TRULY Robert D.Vaught

  7. Larry Robinson says:

    Sounds like exciting things are still going on at the Fresh Air Farm. I too use to work at the Farm as a counselor and as the pool director. Not only that, I was also a camper for three years. My connection with the camp was way back when we would get a hundred children at a time and they would stay for a month at a time. The eighteen years that I was with the camp was the most enjoyable time of my life. I hope that we made a difference in the lives of the kids. I still miss the Farm and the many friendships that were made. The children are blessed that such a loving place is available for them. Best regards, Mr. Larry

  8. Dominic skinner says:

    I was a camper there in the 70’s. 3 years in a row. I loved it and the memories and things I learned will always be with me. There is also a blog on facebook were former campers and counselors are re-connecting.

  9. Emely Feeley says:

    What a great article. I really love reading your article!

  10. Sandra Webb says:

    I am so glad that IPC cleaned up the sewage on the ground in 2008, settled the many lawsuits by campers and their parents, and avoided prosecution because of the wild parties and underage drinking in 2007. It looks like things are improving at The Farm. Glad that someone is paying attention now.

  11. [...] great example of a relational ministry is Children’s Fresh Air Farm (pictured above), from Birmingham’s Independent Presbyterian Church. It is just one of many [...]

  12. Lauren Leach says:

    I am a former counselor as well. It is wonderful to see the progression of such a meaningful and wonderful program. Good luck in the future!

  13. Ella McCord says:

    My name is Ella,I am writing to ask you how can I get information from you so My kids can be apart of the Fresh Air Farm.I went here every summer when I was little and I always carry the times I had with me until this day. I would Like my Kids here in Atlanta Ga to have a chance like I did to know about this program. Is there anyway you can let me know if there is a chance, I would love to pass my time I had here on to them so they can have the joyful time in their youth and something that will help them grow.

  14. Jesse says:

    I remember going to this camp in the mid 90’s. Me and my 2 brothers looked forward to the summer each year. Some of the life lessons we learned then are costantly expressed in our daily lives now. I grew up in a crime driven low- income community and a single parent home. This camp was very helpful in giving my mom time to relax and not worry about our safety. My mother would have never been able to pay for us to attend another camp, but thanks to CFAF, we were able to experiance fun in ways we couldn’t imagine. I am now 19 years old. I attend UAB and currently hold a 4.0 GPA. Despite the enviroment I was raised in, I’ve never been arrested, never drank alcohol, and never used drugs. This camp means so much to me and I cannot wait until the day I am able to revisit the campgrounds and make a substantial donation to ensure that kids are given the same opprutunities I had while growing up.

  15. Felicia says:

    I attended CFAF back in the 80’s, and can truely say I enjoyed my time there. I have have nephews and many cousins to attend as well. I sing the praises of CFAF anytime I hear someone talking about camping and always recomend that they look you guys up. I a glad to see that you guys are still growing strong and continuing the tradition of serving the community. Thank you for the happy memories that were made there at camp with Ms. Becky and the others. By the way every year when we returned from camp my mom made good use of the skills we learned tending our garden plots!!!

  16. Charlie Wilky says:

    I attended the CFAF as a child, now I have children of my own. I would love to send my children to this camp. My children and I have talked about the friends, and fun I so enjoyed at the CFAF on many occasions. I was so tickled to see the camp is still up and running making meomeries for more children that they will never forget.

  17. I attended CFAF as a child in the Sixties, and still remember tha impact it made on my life. I would love to know how to get in touch with Mr Larry and Miss Puggs, I trully loved them with all my heart. I remember the last night we always had a water show and I knew that the next day we would have to go home, so I got upset and didnt want to do the last solo of the evening, and Mr Larry talked to me and told me that he would be at the end of the pool when I came up. I calmed down enough to finish the show and he kept his promise and was waiting for me at the end of the pool as I came up out of the water. I have said for years that I want to just walk the property one more time and have always wondered if the Big House was still there. I hope someone knows how I could reach them, it is very important to me, Thanks for the memories, Alexis

  18. Patsy says:

    My brother and I went to CFAF in the 50’s and loved it more each year. I cried when I was no longer able to go due to the age limit. My best childhood memories are the times I spent there. Now as I ride on Shades Crest Road, I always think back to our Sunday afternoon service sitting on the huge rocks overlooking the valley below and singing “Day Is Dying In The West.” My love for flowers started there in my own private little flower garden, and enjoying being able to take home a bouquet at the end of the month. I learned how to swim there, and received my Jr. American Red Cross card, which I still own. I loved roasting marshmellows in the woods at night sitting around the campfire. We had so much fun in our cabins, being about to look out when it rained. I always looked forward to having our talent shows. Mrs. Roberston the camp director I loved so much! I was excited when I reached the age to finally live that month in the big house! Thanks to IPPC for the many years of memories…I still share them with friends and family!

  19. danna green says:

    I went to this camp in the mid 90s this place was and will always be a big part of my life i have so many wonderful memories of the camp the big house the flower plots that we pulled weeds from every morning walking to raise the flag in the mornings and the smell of breakfast cooking to this day the early morning smell of bacon cooking still reminds me of the camp. the arts and crafts and pavillion at nights singing before we went to sleep i love and miss this place so much i met a wonderful councler that ill never forget was ms brandy williams i wrote with her for years after i was too old to go again and always wonder how she is i recomend this camp to anyone who is looking for their children never a bad memory thanks to fresh air farm for all my good child hood memories.

  20. cathylarue-redd says:

    I was a camper when I was little this place was great Icouldnt wait each year to see my friend swimming , my garden ,church,band, singing in line at food time .It was also nice to have a place .me and my brother loved this place very glad to see its still here.

  21. elizabeth carlisle says:

    when i was a child i couldnt wait to be at camp , i always had a blast , i loved meeting new ppl , and learning new things, i can remember before every meal we had to stand outside and sing , man if i could only go back in time

  22. Terry W Fortenberry says:

    Hello to the fresh air farm. i was there when i was a little boy and im 53 now i’ve allways remember the times i’ve had there and i loved every moment of my time there i think of there all the time i was only there one time but it left a live time of memorys for me i allways wanted to come back but i could not you see i had open heart sergey whan i was 7 years old in Birmingham,Al an i never got to go back to the (fresh air farm) witch i loved dearly it’s funny how just 0ne trip there changed my live i’ve tryed to find the location of the farm but never could but to day on the 14th of november 2013 i tipped in on google (fresh air farm) and to my surprise there it was it made me so happy to see it i was be side my slef with joy :-) …. if any one that can send there kids to the farm then do it it will be a memory that will stay with them for ever.. to the (Fresh aie farm) if it would be possible for me to come back and just visit and look around it would meen the world to me !!!

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