Some kids might be worried about the Shhh! factor when they think of spending their time at the local library. But whispering is not a prerequisite for the Fit to Read Camp, based at the Largo Public Library.
"Actually, the only prerequisites are your imagination and running shoes,'' said Stephanie Simmons, the camp director.
The camp, in its second year, has the campers spend mornings exercising, whether it's a brisk walk to Central Park's new playground or a swim in one of the city's pools. And when the temperature rises to 90-plus outside, participants spend their afternoons in the library, devoting their energy to literacy, books, stories and writing.
The three-week camp, designed for kids heading into third, fourth and fifth grades, will offer more sessions in July and August. It costs $295 for Largo residents and $40 extra for nonresidents.
Julianna Willette, a rising fourth-grader at Seminole Elementary, is a self-proclaimed bookworm who says she wanted to attend the camp because it fits her personality. "I like this better than other camps because you get to read and be in the library. You don't have to be outside where it's hot so much of the time,'' she said.
Although most of these kids love to read, the campers' personalities run the gamut, said Simmons, a 2005 Largo High graduate who holds a degree in communications from the University of South Florida.
"We have a few who have experienced a struggle with reading,'' she said.
And of course, it is summer vacation, she acknowledges.
"I think the biggest challenge in running this camp, with its focus on reading and writing, is making sure the kids know we're keeping it fun," Simmons said. "We kind of hide the fact that they are learning. Kids want to stay on summer vacation.''
Alexa McClendon, who is a return camper from 2010, says she likes it because the counselors keep her busy, "and I don't have to hurry through the library,'' she said. "I just like to be in here. It's calmer than other places.''
Natalie McClendon, Alexa's mother, said the camp helps the family instill good habits.
"I have a son who is older, and I can't say he likes to read so much. He never was able to develop the love of reading (Alexa) has with this camp," she said. "We felt the camp was a good fit also because, as we say in our family, my daughter is a solid young lady, and I want her to maintain a certain degree of activity.''
The seed was planted for the camp in 2009 when the city conducted a two-year project called "Heart of Largo: Eat Smart, Play Hard," funded through Tufts University.
Joan Byrne, director of Largo's Recreation, Parks and Arts Department, was in the audience during a fitness presentation at the Largo Cultural Center.
"A speaker from Tufts (Dr. Christina Economos of Tufts' Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy) was talking about summer and how it can be a bad time for kids' health and how they gain weight in the summer, and how they also lose some of their literacy skills,'' Byrne said.
"I remember sitting in the Cultural Center with what I consider the best park in Pinellas County right there, and the most beautiful library next door, and I realized we had a perfect combination of venues to do a camp that focuses on keeping kids fit and helping their reading skills.''
As far as that Shhh! factor goes, Byrne thinks whispering is a thing of the past. "Libraries today have so much activity going on. No, we don't expect them to whisper all day,'' she said.
Simmons said she finds herself encouraging the kids to talk.
"Although it's important to keep quiet for others, an important part of the camp is for us to keep them active. They are encouraged to have fun and to talk, especially about reading, writing and stories.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at [email protected]