Norwich Summer Jam offers summer fun, learning, service for young people

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Mon., Jul. 29, 2013
Mercedes, 13, is assisted at the sewing machine by Summer Jam staff member Jodi Vara. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
Mercedes, 13, is assisted at the sewing machine by Summer Jam staff member Jodi Vara. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

The hum of a sewing machine and the hiss of a steaming iron filled the upstairs room of the Norwich Salvation Army, punctuated by the laughter of teenagers taking part in the city’s annual Summer Jam. In one corner, young people clustered around waiting for their chance to sew colorful cloth into a cover for a personal journal; in another, Destin, 12, was carefully hand-sewing the last few inches of a pillow he’d made.

He wasn’t entirely new to stitchery – “I did some in school,” he said. But the sewing machine was a little intimidating. He and Bully Busters leader Debbie Kievits figured out a different way for him to work the machine successfully. “I kept my hands away” from the needle, he explained.

About 20 youth aged 10-15 are participating in this year’s six-week Summer Jam, co-sponsored by Norwich Youth and Family Services and Bully Busters, said Kievits. They’ve done hands-on activities, gone on fun field trips and participated in community service projects. “We’re exposing kids to different careers and different activities,” she said. “These are at-risk kids, so we’re trying to get them to think about their choices. You’ve got to start thinking about these things in middle school.”

On one of the recreation room’s pool tables stood a group of bud vases, containing flower arrangements made by the kids with help from a volunteer from McKenna’s Florist in Norwich and destined for a local nursing home. Stacked up on another table were decorated Styrofoam lunch trays, designed to brighten up lunch for clients of the St. Vincent DePaul soup kitchen.

Guest speakers and presenters have visited the program, offering information on healthy food choices or helping the kids construct a much-needed bookcase. The group dropped in on the Spirit of Broadway Theater for an insiders’ tour and hiked up the hill to Norwich City Hall to visit a judge in his chambers. “They got to sit in on a hearing, and afterwards they got to talk to the judge and ask him questions,” said Kievits. She said part of the message for that visit was, “This is where bullies end up.”

But there’s a big fun component as well. Kievits said the group has gone to Mohegan Park, the movies, Mystic Aquarium and other places. Trips to Ocean Beach and Six Flags were also in the works before the program’s Aug. 8 conclusion, along with a cookout and mini block party for the kids and their families. The field trips take place once each week. “We try to get out daily for walks,” she said.

Kievits is assisted by several adult and older teen volunteers, as well as paid staff from the Norwich Summer Recreation program. Adult staffer Jodi Vara helped youngsters navigate the sewing machine. It’s her second year with Summer Jam, helping out with craft projects. “I work at NFA full time, and this is my summer gig,” she said.

Staff member Alyssa Fuller, a recent grad of Norwich Free Academy, is also working with the program for her second year. “I love the activities,” she said. “My dream is to help people, especially adolescents, and this is a good starting ground.” She plans to study psychology at Central Connecticut State University in the fall.

Besides family fees, the Summer Jam program is funded by the Community Foundation of Southeast Connecticut, Liberty Bank, Chelsea Groton Bank, Wal-Mart, and Norwich Youth and Family Services.

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