JOLIET – Isaiah Boyd is gaga for GaGa.
What is GaGa? It’s kind of a cross between dodgeball and “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.” There’s a pit, see, an octagon-enclosed dirt field. A dozen kids enter. One kid leaves. Or something like that.
“I like playing in it with my friends,” said Isaiah, an 8-year-old Joliet camper who attends the Greater Joliet Area YMCA’s summer day camp.
And when he’s not in the GaGa pit, Isaiah enjoys swimming in the Smith Family YMCA pool, which he’s done nearly every day of the 11-week program.
Isaiah’s experience is typical of that of the 150 campers who attend the program at either the Smith YMCA, or at Thigpen and Washington schools. Many come from underprivileged families that would otherwise have little access to summer activities.
On Thursday, the camp hosted a special end-of-summer barbecue for the children and some of the corporate and government sponsors of the program, including state Sen. Pat McGuire, Joliet Police Chief Brian Benton and representatives from Caterpillar and Ecolab.
While the camp is run on a fee basis, nearly half the children attending receive some kind of financial assistance, said James Watts, CEO of the Greater Joliet Area YMCA.
“No child is denied if they want to get into camp,” Watts said.
The camp, which runs from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays, offers a variety of activities, including games and field trips to places like Joliet Splash Station and Family Fun Zone.
Many of the activities are variants of traditional schoolyard games. Nine Square in the Air, for instance, is an airborne version of four-square played with a giant inflatable beach ball in a grid of PVC piping.
Keeping the kids busy and active is the goal of camp counselors.
“The best compliment I’ve had came from a parent who said when their kids get home, all they want to do is sleep,” said Mike Amos, who’s been a counselor at the camps for the last four years.
Michelle Daley’s daughter, Rayann Pardee, 9, has attended camps the past two summers.
“She has so much fun,” Daley said. “She gets to make new friends. It keeps her busy all summer.”
But the camp serves a deeper purpose beyond just fun and games, Watts noted.
“It gives campers an appreciation of diversity and it builds character,” Watts said. “The values we try to model are caring, honesty, respect and responsibility.”
The program started 20 years ago as an after-school alternative for students after physical education programs were cut at District 86 schools, according to Maurice Fears, the YMCA’s associate executive director. It eventually “morphed” into a summer program partnership at the schools, he said. Smith YMCA, 1350 S. Briggs St., joined the program in 2012.