August 4, 2006
By MELISSA PIONZIO, Courant Staff Writer
Clara Ruffin speaks softly with the children who attend her summer camp, placing her hand gently on their backs or the top of their heads.
"Hi, baby," she coos. "Tell me, what are you?"
At any time, the campers at Hartford Friendship Kids' Camp are ready to tell you about themselves. It's part of the camp's focus, says Ruffin, to help the children discover themselves and the gifts they have to offer.
"All of them have something positive to say about themselves," said Ruffin, a retired Bloomfield teacher who started the camp in 2003 with her husband Richard Ruffin. "The environment they live in can be negative at times. Part of our goal is to build these kids up. They are our priority."
So when you ask 5-year-old Abigail Livingston of New Britain about herself, she'll tell you she is "nice, kind, funny and an actress who is able to share with her sister," and Hartford resident Bryan Jones, also 5, says he's "brave and smart."
The three-week camp was offered twice this summer at the Noah Webster MicroSociety Magnet School, starting at the end of June and again in mid-July at Rawson Elementary School. The cost to attend was $4 a day, which included lunch and a weekly field trip, as well as arts and crafts, dance, drama, singing and playtime outdoors. The camp is paid for by the Ruffins and donations from local businesses and individuals.
"After being in the public school system for more than 30 years, you could see there was a need for the kids to do something in the summer instead of just watching TV or riding their bikes all over the place," said Richard Ruffin, who taught in Hartford for 37 years. "We just wanted to provide something for them."
During the final week of session two, dance instructor Norman Campbell had his hands full teaching a routine to a group of 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds that they would perform for their families in the camp finale. With hip-hop singer Usher's smooth voice oozing from the speakers, the children swayed their hips and rotated their little shoulders, their eyes locked on Campbell.
"Come on now, you can't be shy," said Campbell, as he encouraged each one to come forward and dance a solo.
Campbell, a student at the University of Hartford, has been a teacher at the camp for two years, and says he has a good rapport with the children.
"It's definitely been a roller-coaster ride," said Campbell, as two or three campers hung from his arm or hugged him around his waist and legs. "They're hard workers. When you tell them to dance, they dance, and when they are ready to play, they play."
Twelve-year-old Maleek Riley is the tallest among the older group of campers and has the proud distinction of leading the boys in two of the dances for the final performance. Standing in front of the other campers, his smile wide, Maleek "pop" danced in place and moved his arms in circles as he mouthed the lyrics.
"It's fun how we get to dance," said Maleek, who lives in Hartford. "They make dancing fun. We dance alone in the boys' group and then come together with the girls at the end."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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