Summer play creates healthy habits at Daughters of Charity day camp

August 15, 2016

Softball players, from left, Catharine Trejo, Briana Cantu and Casandra Cantu take a water break during a softball game at the 2016 session of El Carmen’s Healthy Families Summer Camp near San Antonio.

Campers coloring with markers are, from left, Abraham Patron, Edgar Garcia and Marcos Garcia Hernandez.


For two weeks in late June, in an area of south Bexar County, Texas, about 40 children gather at the sports field and playground areas at El Carmen Catholic Church for a day camp and wellness experience that brought lots of "felicidad."

The camp has its roots in the El Carmen Wellness Center across the street. The wellness center is run by Daughters of Charity Services of San Antonio, a community health ministry of Ascension Health. It draws clients from a semirural area about 10 miles south of San Antonio. Many of those served by the wellness center are Spanish speakers who labor at low paying jobs on the area's ranches and farms.

Zelvia Domingos, center, does jumping jacks at El Carmen's Healthy Families Summer Camp, a day camp and fitness program run by the Daughters of Charity Services of San Antonio.

"It's a very poor community," said Luis Solis, director of community health and social services for Daughters of Charity of San Antonio. Solis, who holds a doctorate in public health with a focus on community health, said the wellness center is one of the few community resources in south Bexar County. "There's very little around — no parks, no supermarkets, no banks, no post office."

For the women who come to the El Carmen Wellness Center throughout the year to take exercise classes, diabetes education classes in English or Spanish, and learn about nutrition and weight management, the center is a gathering place. It's "a place to socialize, to make friendships," Solis said.

Early in the spring of 2015, when a group of mothers taking exercise classes at the wellness center lamented the lack of healthy, safe and affordable recreation to occupy their children, wellness center personnel were sympathetic. The women asked if the wellness center could offer a summer recreational program for their children. There was no budget for it and no equipment, but there was an abundance of communal will to find a way to fill the gap.

Solis; Sr. Irma Vargas, DC, a community health worker and coordinator of El Carmen Wellness Center; and Sr. Consuelo Tovar, DC, director of mission integration for Daughters of Charity Services of San Antonio; put their heads together with the mothers and came up with a solution. The Daughters of Charity community health service would sponsor a "Healthy Families Summer Camp" for children ages 4 to 14 and the mothers would help staff it.

"We started bringing other partners from the community into the planning … and different people started giving," Solis said. A goal was to improve the health of the children long-term by encouraging active play and healthy eating. The Southside school district, San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, and the El Carmen parish were enthusiastic contributors.

Solis said: "I believe by engaging everyone in planning and implementing the summer program, our working together reflected a true respect for the dignity of people and called forth a generosity of spirit from all of us. We are so happy that everybody offered their services with an open heart, and thrilled with what we accomplished, mostly with volunteers," Solis said.

Luis Solis and Sr. Irma Vargas, DC, share a light moment during the 2016 camp session. Solis directs community health and social services for Daughters of Charity Services of San Antonio and Sr. Vargas is a community health worker who coordinates the day camp.

The church donated its grounds — including its playground, tennis courts, ball field and rooms to serve meals and teach classes. Mothers helped with cleaning before and after the meals. In this, the second year for the camp, one mother brought ice daily and another brought sports equipment.

Sr. Tovar gives much credit to the mothers.

"They may not be financially rich but they are rich in talent and leadership skills," she said. "They came to us and said, 'We want to do something to help.' They then helped shape the program and were here every day to carry it out."

The first year of camp, El Carmen parishioner Fidel Villegas coached campers with assistance from his teenage sons. He donated tennis and baseball equipment. This year, other young adult athletes volunteered as coaches. "They brought their gifts and talents to the program," said Sr. Vargas, who runs the camp.

The school district provided breakfast and lunch. And when Sr. Vargas learned that for some children these were their only meals for the day, the school district sent weekend snack packages for them.

During camp, the church grounds fill with laughter and cheering teammates. Mothers volunteering as team captains line up the children by age groups and rotate them through three activities: soccer, softball and tennis, Sr. Vargas said.

Texas summers can be scorchers. "When the sun gets really bad, we take the kids indoors and have a presentation about nutrition, or other activities," Solis said. "This year we had something new: yoga classes for children."

Imunique Palma draws a pattern on a mirror during an art session at the day camp.

A volunteer taught weight-lifting especially for children. The youngsters played and created art. About 11:15 a.m. the children headed for lunch in the church complex. Camp ended at noon.

Sr. Vargas said that "someone gave us $200, so we took the kids to the movies to see Finding Dory."

Josie Luna volunteers at the camp and the wellness center. She brought her 10-year-old granddaughter with her every day to camp. "Madisyn loves it!" Luna said. "This is her second year going, and she can't wait for camp. All the children like it, the games and the exercise."

As "captain of the kitchen," Luna arrived at 7 a.m. each day to open the dining area.

"I get the air conditioning on and wait for the breakfasts … After the kids leave with their groups, I stay and wipe up the tables and get ready for lunch. Sometimes I go outside and join in the games. I think I'm too old for this, but they keep me going, the little ones."


Copyright © 2016 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2016 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.