COVID-19 has closed playgrounds, limited sports and summer camp activities and curtailed playdates. So for many families with young kids, the long hot summer looms. But the situation got several nonprofit groups in Rutland to brainstorm ways to create kid-friendly, hands-on activities to help jumpstart family fun.
Kimberly Griffin works with the University of Vermont Extension’s 4-H program in Rutland. She said a volunteer complained to her back in the early days of the quarantine, "Our kids are bored! What can we do to get tangible projects into their hands?"
Griffin thought it was a great question, but admitted she felt daunted by the obstacles COVID-19 had created.
She had been working since last fall with a larger group of family and child-oriented agencies known as the Vermont Youth Project of Rutland County. During a Zoom meeting the group held four or five weeks ago, she mentioned the volunteer's question.
"It kind of just took off," she said.
By the end of the call, Griffin said they had roughed out a plan to create and finance free summer activity boxes for kids in Rutland County.
“Yeah, that’s sort of how Rutland works,” Andy Paluch said. Paluch is program director for Come Alive Outside, a Rutland-based group that promotes getting kids active and outdoors.
“First it’s like, you get all the right people on a conference call, and then someone has a big idea, and then you just stand back and everyone gets to work and makes big things happen,” he went on, pointing to the people hard at work nearby.
Paluch was among a dozen masked volunteers who created an assembly line at the Vermont Farmer’s Food Center in Rutland last week to put 1,500 of those boxes together.
They folded cardboard, affixed green labels, added packets of instant oatmeal and cocoa mix and plopped marbles into mason jars, painstakingly unscrewing and then screwing the lids back on each time.
Danielle Monroe, Director of Wonderfeet Kids Museum in Rutland explained, “Each box has a different theme. We’re putting [in] different activities and introducing kids to a lot of different stuff.”
Monroe said a new box will come out every two weeks over the summer with activities targeted for 8-to 13-year-olds. They’ll be things kids can do on their own, with family or through a Zoom group session.
Things like: growing plants, making cool stuff like a wallet out of duct tape, carving soap and of course using the box itself to make things like a boat, a robot or even a solar oven.
“What really excited me about this project was thinking about myself as a kid,” Monroe said. “I spent a lot of time on my own, because I had two working parents, and summertime was often being left to my own devices. So had I gotten a box like this, it would have been awesome for me.”
A few feet away, Kimberly Griffin was folding instruction sheets. She said the first box has a dairy theme, and includes all the nonperishables to make butter, cheese and what she calls "no-bake cow plop cookies."
A shopping list comes with every box. For this one, families need to provide: a half gallon of milk, half a pint of heavy cream, peanut butter and vinegar or a lemon.
“I think most kids generally know what butter is, but how on earth do you make it?” Griffin asked. “And you can make it at home?”
That’s where the mason jar comes in. Kids fill it with heavy cream, drop in the two marbles and “shake it!” Griffin said.
“And at about minute three or four, you’ll have whipped cream," she said. "And about minute eight to nine, you’ll have butter and buttermilk.”
Kids can just dip right in and slather their butter on toast or use it to make the no-bake cookies. A square of cheese cloth comes in the box, too, which can be used to make a soft Indian cheese called Paneer.
Griffin has young children herself, and knows many working parents are feeling overwhelmed right now. She said she hopes this effort helps.
“By no means are these boxes babysitters, but they’re at least an opportunity for family engagement," she said. "And maybe there’s an older sibling, or maybe there’s an older neighbor. Or maybe that parent gets home exhausted and all that kiddo has to do is bring them a jar with marbles in it and a pint of heavy cream and say, 'Let's make butter!'”
Griffin added that maybe that kiddo says, “I can do it and I’m going to shake it while you rest!”
Initially, she said the group set out to make 500 boxes. But once word got out, demand grew. Griffin said they were able to secure funding and enough donated items to ramp up to 1,500 boxes and include Addison County as well as kids especially hard hit by the pandemic.
“About 100 boxes will go specifically to youth in foster care, to youth in DCF care who are homeless," Griffin said. "That was very important to us."
Organizers said they have a series of five boxes planned, but they may add a sixth. They've set up a Gofundme page, and Wunderfeet's Danielle Monroe says so far, families seem excited and grateful.
“It’s kind of making lemonade out of lemons. Kids are home and they have less things to do this summer," Monroe said. "But maybe we’ll be introducing them to things they’ve never thought to do before, and they could find a new passion.”
The first boxes in the series were delivered to libraries and other central locations for pick up last week.