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Editor's note: This is part of an ongoing series of guest columns about the Southlake YMCA and its upcoming $35 million transformation to the Crown Point facility.

Kids have headed back to school, and 700 of them are fresh out of the Southlake Y’s 10-week summer camp. The friendships and newfound skills from camp boost them into the new school year.

Under the watchful eyes of summer camp staff, kids are encouraged to explore new interests, friendships and the outdoors. Over the summer, their confidence grows, and once-shy children come out of their shells. According to Lisa Dudek, her 6-year-old son Dominic had a meaningful experience at camp.

“Being around other kids all summer really helped him develop socially,” she said. “His teachers have already noticed that he is more confident. He is definitely coming back next summer.”

According to Y staff, Dominic’s experience is typical among campers, and many of them return to camp year after year.

Camp is offered five days a week, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. The extended hours make camp an important resource for parents who need quality child care during the summer. The programming includes a variety of activities. A carnival day and a visit by the Clydesdale horses were highlights this summer.

“There is something fun and different all of the time,” said Sarah Johnson, Southlake YMCA youth and family coordinator.

Adventure Camp participants took field trips to destinations such as Iron Oaks Environmental Learning Center in Olympia Fields, Illinois, Barker Mansion in Michigan City and Fair Oaks Farms. Campers rode horses at Forest View Farms in Tinley Park, Illinois.

Forty kids in the Junior Leaders Camp focused on community connections and service. They cared for animals at the Humane Society Calumet Area in Munster and interacted with elderly adults at Caring Hearts Adult Day Services in Portage. Campers traveled to the the Federal Reserve Money Museum in Chicago, where they enjoyed posing for photos next to $1 million in cash.

Summer camp also means a lot to the camp staff, many of whom return each summer. Chris Myers marked her 10th year as a summer staff member this year.

Paige Dougherty is a sophomore majoring in elementary education at Indiana University in Bloomington. She has spent many summers at the Southlake Y, both as a camper and as a staff member.

“I really like what the YMCA is about and the values they instill in the kids," Dougherty said.

Dougherty remembers fun and friends during her childhood summers at the Y. For the past two years, she has been working to create that same experience for other youngsters.

“It’s awesome to see the kids learning and growing together year after year,” Dougherty said. “Seeing the kids blossom makes my heart so happy.”

Now Dougherty is back on her college campus, but she knows where she’ll be next summer.

“I’ve already started planning our field trips and crafts,” she said. “I’m ready.”

For information on the YMCA go to www.crymca.org/southlakeycampaign.

Laurie Halaska is the CEO of the Crossroads YMCA Association. The opinions are the writer's.