Ten Steps to a Free Art Camp by Erica McCarrens

For the past 2 years, the Dixon has been offering 2 weeks of free summer camp to the surrounding area’s public school children. 

I would like to focus on this year’s camp, since it just ended, and I’m still reeling from it. Offering a free camp sounds easy. At least, I thought it sounded easy when my boss, Margarita Sandino, first mentioned it about it 3 years ago. 

 It is not easy. It had become my primary job for almost half a year. People would ask me “Hey Erica, what are you working on?” The answer was always, “Summer camp.”  Eventually, people stopped asking. In this post, I would like to walk you through the monumental task of offering a free summer camp in 10 steps. 

Step 1: Calculate a budget for camp, and wait for approval. (It was approved, thanks to our membership base and donors!) 

Step 2: Pick the schools. The Dixon’s surrounding zip codes are 38111 and 38117. That includes Sharpe Elementary, Sherwood Elementary, Sherwood Middle, Willow Oaks Elementary, Sea Isle Elementary, South Park Elementary and Colonial Middle. We added Campus school, because we were on their turf at the University of Memphis, and we hired students from Overton High school to be our counselors. So, a grand total of 9 schools were involved. 


Step 2.5 Create the framework of camp. This camp was broken into 3 groups; Painting “Majors” (1st -3rd grade) Printmaking “Majors” (4th-6th grade) and Sculpture “Majors” (7th-8th grade). 

Step 3: Design and print the registration forms and deliver stacks of them to the principals of each school. I visited each school and explained the Dixon’s camp.  Then, I asked the principals to distribute them however they chose. 

Step 4: Follow up with principals. Principals are very busy people, especially in the spring. So following up took months of almost daily phone calls and visits. I became Shelby County Schools’ biggest pest. 

Step 5: Finally! Some forms are returned with student information! But I can’t do anything until all the forms are turned in. So we wait another month. 

Step 5.5: Lunch training. While we wait, the education team attended a lunch training for Shelby County Schools. We used their summer lunch program to feed the campers. That way, the families didn’t need to worry about packing lunches every day. 


Step 6: Sort through the forms. Once all the forms were turned in, they took over my workspace and became my life. We drew 7 names from each school for each week, and placed them in separate piles according to age. The forms were filled with information that needed to be sorted, from allergies and emergency contacts, to the children’s shirt sizes. 


Step 6.5: Meanwhile, camp still needed to be planned. Margarita Sandino and I began interviewing for positions. We needed to fill 13 positions for instructors and counselors. 

Step 7: Begin calling the “winners” of the drawing. Big kudos to my co-workers for helping with these phone calls. Some families needed to be called 3-4 times, some phone numbers no longer worked, and some families just couldn’t make it to the camp after all. Most of the families work long hours, and felt like they couldn’t call after the Dixon was closed, so I began leaving my cell phone number on their voice mails. This resulted in late-night phone calls, and weekend work, which was just fine as long as we got campers. 


Step 8: The mailings. Packets were then mailed to the families filled with information about camp. I think I counted 10 forms in each packet. Melissa Bosdorf, the Dixon’s Receptionist, was so kind to make mailing labels, and I stuck the stamps on the envelopes. I know sticking stamps on envelopes seems like an easy task, but the USPS gave me 3 stamps per envelope. That equals 363 stamps that needed sticking. 

Step 9: Orientation day. A week away from camp, everyone had been contacted, contracts were made and signed, and the staff was ready to go. Except for me. I still didn’t know my way around the University of Memphis, and I was supposed to give a 3 hour orientation with all 13 staff members. Talk about a nervous wreck! 


Step 9.5: Moving day. We had to haul 3 classrooms worth of art supplies from the Dixon to the University, as well as food for staff, chairs, office supplies, and a refrigerator. 


Step 10: IT’S CAMP! My biggest fear that Monday morning was that no one would show up. I was afraid that everyone would find the University as confusing and intimidating as I did. That didn’t happen. By 9:30, our classes were full and making beautiful artwork. At this point, the work had just begun. But I think I will save the Camp Days as a separate blog. 


I cannot express the immense joy this camp has brought me.  Knowing I work for an organization and with people who are just as concerned with our community’s youth as I am, is awesome.  And knowing that the Dixon and the University of Memphis will always be a bright memory for these children makes all the hard work worth it!

- Erica McCarrens, School Programs Coordinator

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Posted by Chantal Drake at 4:46 PM
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