Camp Hope Founder Justin Pearson ’17 On Serving the Underserved

justinpearsonAfter successfully launching a camp last summer in Memphis.,Tenn., for underprivileged teenagers, Justin Pearson was invited, by Career Planning, to give a talk on campus about his experiences.

When he first came to Bowdoin, Pearson said he was inspired by Joseph McKeen’s ideas on the common good, particularly the notion that students should put their education to the best use possible.

In his 1802 inaugural address, when he became Bowdoin’s first president, McKeen said these words: “It ought always to be remembered that literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good, and not for the private advantage of those who resort to them for education. It is not that they may be enabled to pass through life in an easy or reputable manner, but that their mental powers may be cultivated and improved for the benefit of society.”

But doing good takes more than inspiration; it requires vision, planning and support. After Pearson hatched the idea for Camp Hope, he applied for and received the Thomas Andrew McKinley ’06 Entrepreneur Grant to finance his plan. This grant is part of Bowdoin Career Planning’s funded internship program, which provides summertime funding for students to pursue unpaid internships or implement self-designed projects. Many of the grants support students who want to help the underserved.

Through additional donations from the Boys and Girls Club of America, Shelby County Schools Nutrition Services and LensCrafters, Pearson set up Camp Hope as a three-week program to target teens living in some of Memphis’s high-poverty, high-needs areas. Pearson grew up in Memphis.

Pearson said he designed Camp Hope to give some high school students a chance to connect with their communities in a positive way.The camp focused on social advocacy, academic achievement and global perspectives. Throughout its duration, the program supplied campers with breakfast, lunch and snacks. LensCrafters offered free optometry exams and glasses to any camper with poor eyesight.

Pearson was not reticent about describing the challenges that came with jumpstarting a new program. In addition to grappling with a rushed recruiting process and the logistical challenges of organizing a staff, Pearson had to adapt his program to meet the varying academic levels of campers. “While we had students preparing to go to college, we also had students just struggling to read,” he said.

Yet, Pearson said the rewards made up for the difficulties. Just helping one student learn how to read at a higher level “ignited a fire to continue the work that we are doing,” he said.

Next summer, Pearson wants to expand Camp Hope to a second location and add programs, such as more foundational reading lessons and resume building sessions.

Speaking to all students, Pearson concluded, “I want students to understand the value of investing in yourselves and the value of then serving your community.”

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