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Akron summer camp puts middle schoolers in the middle of solving community problems

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Posted at 6:16 PM, Jul 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-02 19:12:52-04

AKRON, Ohio — It’s rare that children are asked their opinions. Even rarer, that they’re given a seat at the table to help solve a problem.

However, this summer, kids are being challenged to do just that.

News 5 takes you inside a camp specifically designed for middle schoolers, challenging them to be changemakers, part of our A Better Land series.

They say in life, the real education comes when you step out into the real world.

This summer a couple hundred Akron middle schoolers are getting a crash course on how the world revolves around them. News 5 tagged along with kids from “Camp What If” as they visited Akron community leaders, artists and reporters, entrepreneurs and civic leaders.

“They get to ask sort of blunt questions with adults and a lot of times, middle schoolers feel it’s pretty rare for an adult to listen to them,” said Joel Daniel Harris.

“Camp What If”, is a week-long summer program that challenges kids in 6th to 8th grades to think about ways to improve their communities.

“It’s like they love to collaborate with little kids so they can get little kids mindsets,” says "Camp What If" student, Ava Davis.

Campers are challenged to figure out solutions to the problems, their young eyes see, in the world around them.

“I’d like to see people like picking up trash, like not letting the earth be littery [sic],” said Ava.

Camper Annaline Farfan wants to see violence and racism addressed, while Dacia Jackson wants the focus to be on the shootings and killings in her city.

“What we’ve really noticed from working with middle schoolers is they have incredible empathy. They've got a ton of passion and energy and excitement. They've got creativity like crazy,” said Joel Daniel Harris.

Harris is Executive Director of TomTod ideas, which is the non-profit behind “Camp What If”-- which focuses on bringing- out the critical thinking skills of middle schoolers.

“There are not enough opportunities where we sit down and ask kids what matters to them and what they think we should do about it. To me there’s a magic that happens here,” said Megan Kleidon, one of the camp’s mentors and CEO of Red Oak Health.

Kids brainstorm with one another and are then tasked with creating real solutions for community issues. Some of those solutions have actually been implemented over the years.

“I just feel more like safe and like I can talk more here. Like all my ideas are also being considered. It feels like I'm powerful like I can do stuff," said camper Jay Cooke.

“It’s really amazing to talk to other people and get everybody’s ideas,” says camper, Dacia Jackson.

"We hope that middle schoolers walk away from Camp What If with a passion for their community, having seen it in a new light," Harris said.

“When we’ve got kids like these driving the bus, we’re going to do great things. We don’t have to worry. The next generation is going to make a real difference,” said Kleidon.

“Camp What If” is offered in Akron, Canton, and North Canton and is free thanks to sponsorships in those cities.

To find out more about “Camp What If, click here.

This story is part of A Better Land, an ongoing series that investigates Northeast Ohio's deep-seated systemic problems. Additionally, it puts a spotlight on the community heroes fighting for positive change in Cleveland and throughout the region. If you have an idea for A Better Land story, tell us here.