Each summer, Rural & Migrant Ministry invites rural children, ages 8 to 17, from across the farming areas of New York to our Overnight Leadership Camp. A key part of the Camp experience is an annual field trip to places that these young people might never otherwise have the opportunity to visit. A priority this year was to take our campers to a beach, since the lakefront at camp was closed. This year, we planned to take the whole camp — nearly 100 people — to the Long Island Sound in Norwalk, Connecticut.
The children who attend our Camp face many hardships during their daily lives, including prejudice and discrimination. Unfortunately, the trip to Calf Pasture Beach near Norwalk was no different.
The field trip came midway during camp; the outing had been planned since early March by the camp’s longtime Program Director, Tara Thibault-Edmonds, who emailed the City of Norwalk’s Recreation & Parks Department to inquire about renting a pavilion at the beach.
“The children in our camp are primarily the children of New York farmworkers and rural low-income families, and they do not often get experiences like this one,” Thibault-Edmonds wrote to Events Coordinator Rebecca Kovacs on March 9. “We are considering the possibility of renting one of the tented pavilions, although our group in total is about 90 people, including adult counselors and staff. Our biggest concern is finding a location for our buses to park, and if we need to provide any type of information to the recreation and parks department about our group? We would love to hear from you!”
Kovacs, however, never responded to the email, nor did she reply to a follow-up voicemail Thibault-Edmonds left her. Believing the city needed no additional information from the camp, Thibault-Edmonds assumed all would be well with the field trip. She put in place a certificate of insurance and a safety plan, which are needed for these types of excursions, and made arrangements to bring two camp lifeguards along.
The day of the outing began with an inauspicious start: Only one of the reserved (and paid for) buses showed up at Camp. RMM left the Camp with only one bus instead of two; RMM was forced to divide up half the children into a fleet of our vans – which meant that we had to pay a parking fee of $42 per van (plus gas). Two of the van drivers mistakenly parked in the residential parking area, and were met angrily by beach staff who redirected them — after checking to be sure they had paid the parking fee, said RMM’s Administrative Director, Sakima McClinton. Then, the campers and staff formed one group.
The beach was, McClinton said, “a sea of white faces, and we were a sea of fluorescent green T-shirts,” emblazoned with the word “Expectation” — the theme of this year’s camp experience.
“Once they saw us all together in one group, the lifeguard came over in the cart,” McClinton said.
“She said, ‘You guys can’t be here. What are you doing here?’”
The lifeguard inquired who was in charge of the group and asked to see the camp’s permit to be on the beach.
“This is a public beach,” Thibault-Edmonds replied. “Why would we need a permit?”
Ultimately, after a phone call with Kovacs — who said she “never received” Thibault-Edmonds’ email or phone message in March — the lifeguard relented.
“I think she knew it would be kind of a nightmare to send us all off of the beach,” she said. “What would that look like?”
Thibault-Edmonds and other camp staff had done their best to shield the children from the ugly exchange — but no sooner were the campers in the water when two privileged women with a young boy began to complain loudly that the kids were “ruining their day,” she said.
“The beach was not crowded,” said Camp Nurse Robin Pelkki. “There was plenty of room for everyone. We have to remember that we are all here from the tribe of the human heart.”
“It was just awful,” McClinton reflected later. “But we were in solidarity. We were ready to fight the fight if we had to. We’re just grateful it didn’t come to that.”
RMM’s Executive Director, the Rev. Richard Witt, said the incident reflects a disturbing pattern.
“Part of the difference for so many of our brothers and sisters is that they experience ongoing micro-aggressions. For those of us on the outside, we only see one incident, and then, not even clearly. We don’t see it in the larger context of ongoing discrimination.”
“It’s very easy, when acts of discrimination happen, for them to be trivialized or written off,” Witt said. “I want to make sure that we at RMM name things rather than shy away from them, with the hope that we raise awareness and bring about change. This is a part of our life at RMM, and why we exist.”