It’s a perennial problem for working parents: how to keep kids entertained during the summer months?
Eréndira Zamacona, a mother of 8- and 10-year-old children, was pleased to learn that the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation is hosting summer camps featuring sports, arts and crafts and other educational activities.
But that joy evaporated after the Spanish speaker learned that summer camp registrations must be made over the phone. She left messages for 10 recovery centers and only heard a reply from one – the employee left a message in English.
“As a mother and community organizer, I am disappointed and frustrated that the system for children is not working as it should,” Zamacona told The Inquirer in Spanish.
She decided to do something about language barriers for families. Zamacona, who is a member of the Comité de Trabajadorxs de Restaurant organizing group, worked with other groups to advocate for Parks and Recreation to make camp information available in other languages.
» READ MORE: Free and Inexpensive Summer Camps in Philadelphia
Zamacona’s experience is just part of Philadelphia’s fight for help the nearly 11% of residents who speak less than “very good” English according to US census data.
All city authorities are required to provide voice access services and have voice access plans. In fiscal year 2021, the city reported more than 88,500 interpreting events over the phone, video, or in person. But as Zamacona and other families have learned, there can be gaps. Even after Parks and Rec tried to address the issue, some families say the process of registering their children could be smoother.
Spanish-speaking families raised the issue of language accessibility at an April meeting with Parks and Rec and other stakeholders. Zamacona recounted how she personally went to a recovery center after the calls went deadlocked. Staff directed her to call the main office because no one on site spoke Spanish or knew how to access interpreters, which the city provided over the phone — an experience that made her feel unwelcome.
The department was receptive to testimonies and put together a plan.
“When we fall short, we acknowledge what went wrong and find ways to rebuild trust,” said department spokeswoman Maita Soukup.
According to the department, she responded by training staff at 23 recreation centers to use voice interpreter phone lines. It also used more than 400 bilingual school counselors to share camp information.
» READ MORE: Philly will open 50 of its 65 pools this summer. Here’s the schedule.
The city also held four face-to-face information sessions with interpreters in May, which attracted more than 20 campers. According to Parks and Rec’s census, at least nine of those children are currently in a park and recreation camp after some families decided to go elsewhere – a dispute by Count Zamacona.
“We worked quickly to remove the barriers these families presented, and as a result we were able to introduce new practices that we hope will result in more families receiving information about Parks and Rec programs in their native language ‘ Soukup said.
but Zamacona is not yet claiming victory. She said much of the effort to educate families about the informational sessions fell on organizers, which included the 215 People’s Alliance and the Coalition for Restaurant Safety and Health. Meanwhile, parents like Veronica Perez gave mixed reviews about the benefits of the sessions.
“There were no prizes, no scholarship information, nothing,” Perez said in Spanish. “I didn’t even see an interpreter.”
Perez, whose first choice was unavailable to her, said the second choice offered was a mile away and too far for her and her 7-year-old daughter. Perez decided to try again next year.
Another parent, Fernando Melo, said the follow-up enrollment emails were in English and when he went to his leisure center to ask about scholarships, which were mentioned in the information sessions, the staff couldn’t help . Despite this, Melo completed the enrollment process for his son.
“He needs to be in activities because we can’t just leave him stuck at home,” Melo said in Spanish. “And I can’t really take in the kids because I work most of the time.”
» READ MORE: Philly will begin opening dozens of weekend recreation centers starting this fall
Melo said the logistical hurdles overcame the alternative of going through private summer camps, which could range from $800 to $1,000 for the summer. Last year the only sensible place for summer camp was in Fishtown, miles from the family’s South Philly neighborhood. Melo adjusted, reducing his hours as a restaurant chef to ensure he had time to catch the bus to drop off and pick up his son. The Parks and Rec camp his son is going to this year is cheaper and just a few blocks from their home.
Zamacona said she hopes the city will improve the process next year.
“They say they’ll be better and ask us to give them a chance, fine,” Zamacona said. “We have to keep putting pressure on them. Otherwise they could pretend the problem was solved and things would go back to the way they were before.”