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BELLOWS FALLS — Friends for Change, an afterschool program in Bellows Falls operated by Youth Services, expanded its summer camp piloted last year, on average engaging 30 youth per week between the end of June and mid-August.

It was seven weeks of play-based, restorative, trauma-informed, no-cost day camp for youth ages 11-20. Using the Compass School campus as a base, the 30 young people were able to try new things ranging from kayaking to community reciprocity and restorative practices. According to Friends for Change founder and co-director Hailee Galandak-Cochran, the campers focused on how they could give back to outdoor spaces in the community, such as cleaning up trash at Cold River, where they swam regularly during the hot weather.

Galandak-Cochran explained that all youth were welcome but programming was specifically created for individuals who have experienced trauma associated with poverty, discrimination, experiences with foster care or family instability.

A range of activities was offered, including field trips to lakes, rivers and hiking spots in the region, along with team-building games and art.

“Like its afterschool counterpart, the summer-time Friends For Change program is designed for and by youth who have stories of resilience,” described Galandak-Cochran. “Friends for Change is about providing the scaffolding and opportunities to build skills to create real systems change,” she said.

Supportive adults help the youth lead community-building restorative circles, affectionately called “deep circles” (because of the nature of the discussions), a hallmark of the group which was evident in the interactions during camp.

“Healing of trauma occurs through peer support, as youth learn self-compassion, empathy, and the power of their stories,” stated Galandak-Cochran.

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As one youth observed, “Friends For Change is about accepting people. We can show up however we are without being judged.”

At camp, the young people practice conflict-resolution and peer-support skills. Meghan Licciardi, the other co-director of Friends for Change, described how, as a result of activities like deep circles, the youth became more connected to their peers and positive adults in the community.

“Participants report an increase in confidence, leadership, a sense of belonging, community involvement, and less substance use,” reflected Licciardi.

A collaboration with Greater Falls Connections, Youth Services’ summer camp received federal funding secured by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders through the Afterschool & Summer Expanding Access Grant program, administered by Vermont AfterSchool, a statewide nonprofit. The Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center and the Vermont Children’s Trust Fund all help make this year’s program possible.

In addition to covering activities, travel costs and entrance fees, Friends For Change was able to have four full-time adult staff and a part-time youth camp chef to help run the Youth Services program.

While summer camp has now come to an end, the youth and the adult staff look forward to trying new innovations at their afterschool Friends for Change which will restart in early September in the Greater Bellows Falls area.

For more information, email info@youth servicesinc.org or call Friends for Change at (802) 689-9663.