Senior summer camp

Sankofa Culture and Art Wellness Village Senior Camp gives seniors an opportunity to participate in artistic and cultural activities during the summer

by Michele Berhorst  •  October 28, 2020

Left to right: Christine Berg, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA, and Rev. Dr. Paulette Sankofa at the Doors of North St. Louis event on Oct. 10.


It was a novel project idea: A summer camp for seniors 60+ years of age in the Old North St. Louis community focused on art and culture.

That is what drew Christine Berg, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA, associate professor of occupational therapy and neurology, into the project when Rev. Dr. Paulette Sankofa “pitched” her idea at a Pitch Partners meeting in early 2019. Sankofa is the founder and CEO of the Peace Education Action Compassion and Empowerment (PEACE) Weaving Wholeness nonprofit. These meetings, held by The Center for Community Health Partnership and Research at the Institute for Public Health and the Institute of Clinical and Translational Sciences, give community members the opportunity to present public health-related project ideas in order to identify potential partners and receive critical feedback. The presented projects are evaluated, and some are selected to receive seed funding. Berg and Sankofa were matched by this process to work together.

Berg has established partnerships with more than 100 St. Louis social service agencies to provide service learning experiences for students to help organizations with capacity-building by performing program evaluations, analyzing data outcomes, and collaborating with staff to develop and deliver programming. She partnered with Sankofa to write the grant, and the Sankofa Culture and Art Wellness Village Senior Summer Camp was funded.

“We both define health as engagement in activities that are meaningful, social, provide choice and control, and are based in the community to reflect the culture of those who are engaging,” Berg says. “By providing an innovative and creative summer camp in a community that often experiences barriers to health care, we can foster health through meaningful participation.”

Research has shown that there are physical, mental and social benefits for older adults who participate in arts programs offered once a week (Noice et al., 2014; Ronzi et al., 2018; Dunphy et al., 2019, Yuen et al., 2011; Phinney et al., 2014). Two studies identified qualitative themes of cohesion, belonging, connectedness, enjoyment and self-confidence from arts participation (Phinney, 2014; Vogelpoel, 2014).

The senior camp was first held in two one-week sessions in July 2019. The 32 participants engaged in a diverse array of artistic and cultural activities such as quilt making, storytelling, Zumba, painting, African drumming, “bling your walking stick,” head wraps and more Monday through Thursday. Campers visited Bentils Urban Farm and Art Gallery and the Scott Joplin Museum on “Fieldtrip Fridays.” Annie Wright, MSOT/S ’20, and Makeda Jackson, OTD/S ’21, assisted with camp registration and greeting campers.

“After the first couple of days, the campers said, ‘Now we know why our kids always came home from camp and all they wanted to do was go to sleep, because camp is exhausting!’” Berg recalls. “Many of the participants had never had that kind of experience before, so they were excited to meet new neighbors, make new friends and try new activities.”

Building on that momentum, PEACE Weaving Wholeness became part of the Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NORC) Collaborative so it could provide year-round programming. Jackie Schechter, OTD/S ’20, helped Sankofa with the “Jazzy Seniors” program, a 10-week socialization program, at Cochrane Youth and Family Center in fall 2019. More than 30 seniors participated in the program, which included bingo, prizes and food. Storytelling and quilting groups continued beyond the 2019 senior summer camp. Grants were submitted to support and expand the 2020 senior summer camp and build capacity for ongoing programming throughout the year.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020.

“Paulette immediately realized that if we were going to have a 2020 senior summer camp, it would all have to be virtual,” Berg recalls. “We were also well aware that our campers were the population most at-risk for COVID-19 and its complications. They were sheltering at home to protect their health and were now even more isolated than before. Paulette quickly pivoted and obtained funding for Chromebooks, Zoom training for instructors and participants, and activity materials.”

Clare Lassiter, OTD/S ’22, and Brianna Barkocy, MSOT/S ’22, worked with PEACE Weaving Wholeness staff weekly to register campers and distribute, administer and analyze the pre-camp data assessments on social isolation, positive attitude, general health and well-being, and community connections. The Chromebooks were distributed to more than 50 campers. Berg helped train instructors and campers on how to use Zoom, and packets of materials for each class were dropped off on doorsteps in a van Sankofa purchased. A local artist decorated the van with colorful murals for easy identification. On July 20, the virtual summer camp began and was an overall success. “I took the woodworking class via Zoom so that I could experience what the seniors were doing. We were a great cohort,” Berg says. “After months and months of isolation, the campers were excited to have contact with others in their community again. The conversations were wonderful, and the seniors were very engaged. All of this was done through their Chromebooks.”

As the pandemic continues, so do the plans to continue building the arts and cultural community and help seniors cope with COVID-19 isolation. Sankofa brought together local artists, businesses and other supporters to paint 30 residential and storefront doors in a four-block area. The artists, many of them seniors who live in the neighborhood, transformed the doors into beautiful works of art with positive messages of peace, hope and well-being for the community. PEACE Weaving Wholeness held a walking tour on Oct. 10 to showcase “The Doors of North St. Louis” project. Berg and her students attended the outdoor, socially distanced event, which gave seniors a chance to engage with neighbors and friends in a safe space.

“Paulette Sankofa is such a creative, active and engaged community leader. She has made a tremendous impact in the lives of many people, including my own. It has been a humbling experience to collaborate with her,” Berg says.

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