Juliece Payne closed her eyes, and her swinging feet came to a stop under her chair.
She said she heard birds chirping, trees rustling in the wind and dogs barking. She heard doors shutting and cars rolling by as she described what it has been like to attend a summer program at the South Terrace Apartments, one of Waco’s three public housing complexes.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is how the brain helps you, (how) the brain controls your body,” Juliece, 8, said. “It feels like happiness. Whenever I go back to school, I can tell some of my friends about the brain and what we’ve learned.”
She was demonstrating how she has learned to listen to the world around her before reacting to what is happening. She picked up the skill during Summer Breakout, a seven-week course hosted by VOICE, a nonprofit that teaches healthy living skills to students in 138 Texas schools, including in Waco ISD.
In its fifth year in Waco and third year at South Terrace, Summer Breakout is seeing its highest enrollment yet, to the point that VOICE representatives had to limit the number of participants because there isn’t enough space for more students, officials said.
Payne, a San Angelo elementary student visiting cousins in Waco through July, spends most of her day fluttering with 44 of her peers between an apartment-turned-classroom, a playground and a youth center at the complex along Kennedy Circle in South Waco.
But the program isn’t like a typical summer camp, prevention specialist and coordinator Pauli Ramos said. With curriculum and reading time focused on life skills and three parts of the brain, Ramos and other VOICE representatives use a classroom setting to teach first- through eighth-grade students in low income areas about how the brain influences learning and behavior.
“What we teach them though is they’ve got to learn to stop and think,” Ramos said. “We’re also teaching them some behavior skills, how to take a deep breath, how to count, how to find a safe place to go to in that moment and take a break before they respond.
“While we may not be able to do anything about how we feel, we can do something about how we respond, especially with the at-risk students we serve. They’re in situations a lot of times where it’s not their fault.”
Summer Breakout started with 11 first- through fifth-grade students at the Kate Ross Apartments on South 11th Street. But when the enrollment outgrew the space available, VOICE moved it to South Terrace and expanded grade levels, Ramos said.
And daily lessons in respect, behavior and nutrition keep students coming back, she said. She has been with Summer Breakout since it started in Waco, and she’s heard a lot of stories from the children in the program about trying to cope with loss, with confusion and with anger throughout the seven weeks, she said.
The teachers use part of the curriculum to get students talking about difficult issues, often asking them to share a “sunshine moment” and a “cloudy moment” to teach them not all bad moments will last forever. Other lessons cover concepts like “fight or flight” behavior, she said.
“That’s when we get a lot of the stories, from ‘My uncle got shot,’ or ‘My dad’s now in jail and I haven’t seen him,’ ” Ramos said. “We talk about finding safe adults to talk to and it being OK if they want to cry, and being OK if they want to be angry, but they have to find a safe way to release that.”
Minnie King’s daughter has been part of the program since it moved to South Terrace, she said. The program helped her daughter become more social and active, and King enjoyed watching her daughter’s improvement enough that she now spends part of each summer helping out, she said.
With several other family members attending Summer Breakout, she has become an honorary mother to some of the other students, too. She often plays games and even sits in on some of the classes as teachers cover topics that range from the importance of exercising to how to spot bullying, King said.
“I really wish we could get more kids. We have a lot of kids over here who don’t come,” King said. “The impact is really good. They learn a whole lot. They learn ‘Yes Ma’am,’ ‘No Ma’am.’ Before then, they didn’t do that, and now they do.”
Ramos hopes the program will eventually expand back out to other public housing locations in Waco, but that might be awhile.
For now, she’s just happy to see the mental impact the program is making, she said. Some of the program’s most behavior-challenged students have become some of the best-behaved students since Summer Breakout started, and that’s been the biggest impact, Ramos said.
“We’ve built that trust with them,” Ramos said. “They’ve seen we’re not just here because it’s a job, we really do care about them.”