HERMISTON — In the middle of summer, Sandstone Middle School is the last place many kids would want to be. The exception stands for the 48 kids participating in Skyhawks STEM Sports Camp this week, who had just learned they were getting free ice cream on Wednesday.

“In our program, sports is the hook. But there is confidence building and character building, those are components that we really drive by,” said Tim Sullivan, who owns Skyhawks in the Tri-Cities, a sports academy for children ages 4-12 of all skill levels.

Sullivan said the camp incorporates components of science, technology, engineering and math.

Kids dissected soccer balls to learn more about how they’re made before shooting goals. Most recently, they tested basketballs to see how high they bounce on different surfaces.

“No matter what grade they’re in, when they return back to school, if they’re doing anything with STEM, they’re going to have an automatic connection,” Sullivan said.

The weeklong camp is open for children ages 6 to 12 who receive services from Made to Thrive, a nonprofit organization that provides funding, transportation, equipment and mentoring for at-risk and foster youth to participate in extracurricular activities.

The camp was brought to Oregon with the help of Community and Shelter Assistance of Oregon, which received a NeighborWorks grant. The grant was able to fund about half of the spots for the camp, and Skyhawks took care of the rest.

“We thought children with the most need were already located by Made to Thrive,” said Monica Cervantes of the Oregon Child Development Coalition, who is part of CASA of Oregon.

More than 15 different businesses and organizations donated to the effort, including the Hermiston School District, which offered Sandstone Middle School as a place to host the camp. Sullivan said the district is also offering free breakfast and lunch to children in the area at the school this week.

Made to Thrive currently serves 267 children in Hermiston, and organizers of Skyhawks STEM Sports Camp are hoping to reach more of them every year.

“We’d like to be able to do this on an annual basis so we can track if we get the same kids year after year, and to be able to find a way to measure the impact that it has,” said Teresa Best of New Hope Community Church, who is also part of CASA.

Kriss Dammeyer, who founded Made to Thrive, said the coaches at camp were starting to learn more about the lives of the kids participating. She said some are facing poverty, foster care, and incarcerated parents.

“This is bringing tears to my eyes, these kids have been labeled so many different things,” Dammeyer said. “We’re proving a lot of people wrong right now.”

Wednesday was a particularly notable day at Skyhawks STEM Sports Camp, because the children received gifts from community partners, including ice cream courtesy of Helados La Michoacana in Hermiston. At the end of the camp this week, all children participating will receive a soccer ball courtesy of Skyhawks.

As kids file into the gym on Wednesday, their camp T-shirts are still crisp white, but Dammeyer said they won’t be for long.

“It’s just really special,” Dammeyer said.

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