For 25 years, Leicester camp bridged gap to help keep kids engaged over summer
By RUSSELL JONES
LEICESTER — Bittersweet.
That was the word on everyone’s lips as they enjoyed a pancake breakfast at the Leicester Central School building on Friday, Aug. 2.
It was the last day of the Summer Alive program for Leicester, Sudbury and Whiting children, but it was also a retirement celebration for the program’s directors Ellie Holsman and Nancy McGill.
Holsman and McGill have led the program since its inception over 20 years ago and now both are moving on from the program.
“I feel that it’s time,” said Holsman. “I have mixed feelings. I like the kids and I love seeing them smile, but it’s time I did other things.”
For Holsman, those other things involve her garden, which she describes as “full of weeds at the moment” and house cleaning. She also has a love for knitting and needlepoint.
“I have things to do that I thought I would take to my tomb,” she said with a laugh. “But Nancy and I have done this for nearly 25 years and the staff here has been together for nearly six years, so we’re a well-oiled machine at this point.”
According to the Otter Creek Academy’s principal, Tom Fleury, the work the two ladies have done has been integral to what the school accomplishes.
“These two have done a remarkable job in tying the strings that hold the students together from where one school year ends and the next begins,” he said. “They provide academic, social and emotional support for the students and they are very skilled at supporting both the students and the school.”
Although Holsman and McGill have been leading the summer program for 25 years, their history together stretches back even longer than that.
Holsman, who will turn 84 in September, was originally from Massachusetts, but moved to Leicester in 1977. She was the teaching principal for years before she stepped down from the principal position to focus on teaching.
“I retired in 2000 from teaching,” she said, “but when I moved here I substituted for everything except for physical education.”
McGill was also a teacher before she went back to school to further her education to become the homeschool coordinator. The Middlebury resident began teaching at the Leicester school in the 1980s.
“Ellie actually hired me as the kindergarten teacher at the school,” the 66-year-old McGill said. “When we taught together there were 125 kids in the school and we began team teaching before it was ever thought about at a wider level.”
Early days of the program and change
Holsman was helping out with the Rutland Northeast summer school program in the 1990s when she saw an opportunity. She wrote an application for a grant from the Council of Humanities that enabled the summer program at Leicester to begin.
The two have worked hard over the years to keep the funding available by writing more grants and procuring funding from donations.
Over the years, the program has slowly evolved with the changing community make-up.
“How it looks now has changed from the way it looked in the beginning,” McGill said. “Twenty-five years ago it was not as common as now for both parents to be working or to have as many single-parent families.”
The growing workforce required the program to expand its days and lengthen the weeks it offered. The program that started out as four days a week for three weeks is now five days a week for six weeks due to the needs of the community.
“That makes it harder for parents to engage in the program and go on trips with the kids,” she continued. “As working parents ourselves, we certainly all understand the difficulty there.”
Both ladies agree that as much as things have changed, some things never will.
“Kids are kids and I love them,” Holsman said. “I love their smiles and their enthusiasm. That will never change.”
McGill said that kids are still kids and families are still families and the program has adapted over the years as needed.
“Though the job is different now, it’s still just connecting with kids,” she said.
Looking at this generation of children with the critical eye of a former principal, Holsman sees areas for improvement.
“Kids are not the readers they used to be,” she said, putting much of the blame for that on technology. “I just don’t see kids bringing books in with them, but they’ve got screens and tablets now.”
Two years ago when the districts merged, the program changed even more and provided the ladies with a new fresh lens to view the program.
“We already had the structure in place for the kids,” McGill said of the merger. “The Sudbury and Whiting kids had always been invited, but we had just never done outreach to bring them in. Now, with them all together it was easier to reach them.”
Holsman agreed with a smile, saying, “These Sudbury and Whiting kids, they belong to us.”
Future of the program
McGill said the two do not intend to just drop away from the program, saying they will still help with writing grants and providing support for the next director.
“I’m excited to see who’s next and what great ideas we can springboard off of,” she said.
Fleury was hopeful the next director would be as skilled at making the school year a seamless transition over the summer as the two ladies have for over 20 years.
“They leave some very big shoes to fill,” Fleury said. “They are highly skilled in so many areas.”
McGill said she has cherished her time with the school community.
“It’s very bittersweet right now,” she said. “Tomorrow we can reflect, but right now, it’s still another day of camp.”