Distance learning camp throws a lifeline to working parents in Healdsburg

Two dozen donors have given $154,000 to keep the program, which lets elementary school students complete virtual instruction in a supervised environment, going at least through December.|

Surely there were three dozen children in the multi-purpose room of the Healdsburg Community Center, so loud was the bedlam emanating from it around noon on Tuesday.

In fact, those decibels were generated by just 12 laughing, shrieking kindergartners and first graders ‒ the maximum number of students allowed, per classroom, at Camp HBG 2.0.

With Sonoma County public school campuses closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this program — a partnership between Healdsburg Community Services, the Healdsburg Unified School District and the nonprofit Corazon Healdsburg — has thrown a lifeline to numerous parents. Described by Corazon Healdsburg CEO Ariel Kelley as “a distance learning camp,” it provides all-day care, while allowing elementary school students to complete their virtual Zoom instruction in a supervised environment.

There are 72 children enrolled in the program, with a waiting list of 15. The cost per child is based on household income.

“The reason we’re here,” said Rich Schwarz, the city’s recreation supervisor, “is to give parents a chance to go to work, and know their kids are in a safe environment — or at least as safe, in these times, as possible.”

Speaking through a translator, Paolo Rincon described Camp HBG 2.0 as “lifesaving.” Her 5-year-old son, Daniel, is enrolled in the program. Without it, said Rincon, she would be forced to cut back significantly on her hours as a housekeeper at a local hotel.

Building on the success of Healdsburg Community Services’ summer camps, HBG 2.0 strictly follows guidelines set down by the Sonoma County health officer. What does that mean, exactly, on the ground at the Community Center?

For one, said recreation supervisor Garrett Perdigao, who along with Schwarz is overseeing the program, “traditional boys and girls restrooms don’t exist.”

To limit exposure, and keep the kids in the same “cohort” or “module,” each classroom has its own dedicated loo. With two instructors per classroom, one is usually available to escort a child to the lavatory, then give it a thorough cleaning.

In the classroom, students sit at opposite ends of 8-foot-long tables. Everyone is required to wear a mask, all day. While there are occasional lapses, mask observance has been very good, 1½ weeks into the program, said Perdigao.

Chromebook laptops are provided, by the Healdsburg Unified School District, to students who need them. On the first day of HBG 2.0, its organizers realized they’d forgotten an important item: earbuds.

“You’d walk into a room that first day, and hear 12 Zoom meetings going on,” laughed Schwarz. After earbuds were wrangled for students who needed them, “it was amazing how much more focused they were.”

The counselors aren’t teachers. They are a combination of facilitators and child care workers, with some teaching thrown in.

“It depends,” said Abel Osorio, who is studying to be a social worker at Santa Rosa Junior College. While much of his time is spent getting students set up for Zoom meetings, he gives assistance where it’s needed.

“Some people do need a little more help than others, so with those students I’ll sit down and help them with a math question, or help them figure out how to write a paragraph.”

“If a teacher needs extra support,” said Maria Herrera, surrounded by first and second graders in a nearby room, “we can step in and help out.”

“This is the first time I’ve worked with kids,” said counselor Amber Peters, a student at Sacramento State. “It’s a lot of fun, although getting 6-year-olds to be accountable is obviously challenging. But it’s been smoother than I would’ve expected, so far.”

Healdsburg Community Services has historically been funded by the city’s tax on overnight hotel stays. So drastic was the drop-off in visitors this year that it blew a hole of more than $1 million in the department’s budget, said Community Services Director Mark Themig.

To the rescue, for HBG 2.0, rode two dozen donors, who contributed a total of $154,000, which will keep the camp in business at least through December. Two couples gave $50,000 apiece: Carson and Kathy Block; and Beth Berkson and Rob Das.

Making a more modest contribution were Laurie Beijen and her husband.

While trying their best to help their kids with online learning in the spring, “We learned very quickly we are not good teachers,” Laurie Beijen said. “Our kids told us all the time.”

Those sessions often became “contentious,” she said. Having a neutral third party facilitate their children’s online learning “was transformative. It’s made a big impact on our family.”

Her 8-year-old son, in particular, missed the sports and socializing the pandemic stripped from his life. He was struggling.

The first week he attended Healdsburg’s summer camp, his sadness “evaporated,” said Beijen.

The boy has continued to improve and thrive in HBG 2.0. “I see the look in his eyes,” she said, “and it’s like, ‘I have my son back.’ ”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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