Summer camp attendees pose for a photo outside the El Futuro location.

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Philly kids have a strong desire to learn about their neighborhoods. After Mighty Writers tailored summer courses to match interest at its various locations — think immigration themed storytelling in the Italian Market, or girl power workshops at the 15th and Christian outpost — enrollment in the programs skyrocketed.

The surge brought in over 1,300 applications this year for the camp, which offered more free slots than ever before. Still, 600 children were turned away. There just wasn’t enough room.

Demand has steadily increased over the decade the educational nonprofit has been open.  Mighty Writers has multiplied its summer camp capacity by nearly seven, but that’s still not enough to keep pace.

“It feels like the numbers are exploding on us all of a sudden,” executive director Tim Whitaker told Billy Penn. “It has us really thinking here, how do we get even bigger than we’ve been getting, and faster?”

Reading levels go up

Latrisha Brown, a preschool teacher in South Philly, is relieved she made the cut. For the third summer in a row, she’s squeezed all her three children into the day camp at 15th and Christian — and she’s seen a marked improvement in their literacy skills.

“When September comes and they get tested in their classes, their teacher says their reading levels do go up,” Brown said. “It’s such a plus.”

Plus, Brown said her kids actually enjoy it. When she told her 12-year-old son he’d be back at writing camp this summer, he started planning out what snacks he’d bring. He then yelled out to Alexa to set an alarm and wake him up in time.

Brown encouraged a friend from North Philadelphia to enroll her son, too — but the Mighty Writers at 16th and Norris was already full.

“I’m not surprised there’s a long waiting list,” she said. “I think they’re doing a wonderful job. I’m very pleased they were able to give us a spot.”

Toddlers at the Mighty Writers West summer camp Credit: Courtesy Tim Whitaker

Integration with public housing

Whitaker has a few ideas for what’s behind the recent spike in applications. First and most obvious: It’s a free program with a solid track record in the poorest big city in the country.

Then there’s the relatively new idea to customize lesson plans for each of the seven learning centers, creating hyperlocal programming that appeals to both parents and their children. (Two locations are currently under construction.)

Another big driver in signups: Mighty Writers recently moved its West Philly location inside the Philadelphia Housing Authority property at 3500 Fairmount Ave — and families living there have signed their kids up in droves.

“There are just a ton of kids there,” Whitaker said. “Those kids are in great need, and they’re showing up.”

He believes the organization is at a crucial moment. “We’re looking at our infrastructure really closely now with these numbers coming in like this,” he said. “We have to grow not just programming, but the administrative side of it all.”

More volunteers would help — recruitment efforts are slated to ramp up — as would more donations and financial support, to pay the teachers and hire more staff to keep an expanded roster running smoothly.

“When you’re in a city with the deepest poverty in the country, that’s a lot of kids who can’t afford to go to summer camp,” Whitaker said. “The need is really deep.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...