Wild and bright: Marilyn Hamilton Sports and Literacy Summer Program turns out to be fun and free

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PITTSFIELD — A little boy ran up to a table being stocked with trophies and paused in awe, letting his melting Popsicle drop to his side.

"Wow," he said, eyes widening.

"Those are for you. You worked hard this summer," Manny Slaughter told him. "Now go sit down in the bleachers and wait your turn to get yours."

Slaughter and his wife, Vanessa, have run a summer program on the city's West Side for some 21 years. First founded as a free sports camp, the program has grown and evolved to become known in the past seven years as the Marilyn Hamilton Sports and Literacy Summer Program.

The trophy the youngster was excited about did not have an athletic figure swinging a bat or jumping for a basketball atop its base, rather it had an ornate shape of a flame framing figures of three books, a globe and an oil-burning lamp, the latter a scholarly symbol for wisdom and knowledge. The nameplate on it was inscribed with some of the programs many sponsors, including Pittsfield Cooperative Bank, St. John's Lodge No. 10, Berkshire Family YMCA, as well as Berkshire United Way, TD Bank, Greylock Federal Credit Union and the city of Pittsfield.

Thursday afternoon, the program closed out another seven weeks of summer fun, learning and friendships with a family and community celebration in Durant Park, which included passing out the trophies on the basketball court.

"The kids get T-shirts, they went to Bousquet and Hancock Shaker Village, and the movies for free," said Manny Slaughter. "And that's important to note because the majority of our kids can't afford camp. We are lucky to have our partners, and today is a way to share my gratitude with all those who help me make a difference in our community."

Manny's own daughter, Nyanna, was a program participant, became a counselor around age 16, and continues to help out on the summer staff now, as she's about to enter her senior year studying criminal justice and business management at the University of New Haven.

"There are a lot more younger kids here now, so it's cool to see them grow. We have a lot of generations, and we have a lot of bright kids here," she said.

The kids are not only bright, but also wildly energetic and competitive according to staff, which is why Durant Park is a perfect place to set up the camp's base. This year's 70 participants, who range in age from 6 to 17 years old, spent their weekdays on the grounds playing basketball and dodge ball, doing dance competitions and playing other games. The students in kindergarten through Grade 4 did a reading program across multiple subjects with Marlena Willis and Stephanie Wright, and the older students took part in a new social skills component with Vanessa and Nyanna Slaughter.

The social skills part incorporated the following themes: respect, honesty, commitment and teamwork, bullying, hygiene, community and responsibility, and tolerance.

"I get to know a lot of them over the summer and they learn how to be around different kids, which will help them later in life," said Shayne Turnage. She returned to the program for her third year as a counselor, and also works as a paraprofessional in local schools.

But mostly, the Marilyn Hamilton Summer Program is about fun.

Tyler Williamson, a first-time camp staff member and rising senior at Taconic High School, said working with the kids kept her summer interesting, especially in staff against kids relays and games.

Josiah Josephs, 11, said his favorite field trip was to Bousquet, and his favorite counselor was his cousin, Charles Ramsey II, "because he's fun to be around."

Carissa Tatro, 11, Ella Pierce, 10, and Victor Torres, 9, said the best part of camp was meeting each other.

"She lives next door to me, but without camp, we wouldn't have known each other," Tatro said of Piece.

Torres said that if he wasn't in the summer program, he'd "probably be playing on my phone."

Said Nyanna Slaughter, "We don't really know, at the end of the day, what these kids are going through. So we just want them to know that they can come here and be safe and have fun and motivate each other. This camp is fun, wild and free. We laugh all the time."

"It's a special camp," Manny Slaughter said. "And we're making an impact on the West Side."


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