This South Carolina summer camp adapted in the face of COVID-19

Camp iRock went virtual to help kids improve their reading scores

This story was originally published July 27, 2020, on It has been edited for Duke Energy’s Nuclear Information Center.


Walking through the grocery store, Heather Sargent said she felt relieved when her daughter stopped to flip through the racks of books and magazines. Makenzie, who will

Camp iRock - superhero
Makenzie Sargent wearing some of the prizes she received from Camp iRock.

start second grade in the fall, was struggling with reading last school year, but after working with a reading coach and attending a summer camp, she gained confidence and enjoys reading again.

Makenzie Sargent wearing some of the prizes she received from Camp iRock.

“She asks if she can get one of the books,” Sargent said, “and it’s definitely exciting to see that love of books come back to her.”

The camp, Camp iRock, was almost canceled this year because of the pandemic, but Julie Capaldi, president of the United Way of Pickens County, and her staff in Easley, S.C., found a way to make it happen virtually for kids like Makenzie.

The United Way partners with the Pickens County School District and YMCA to host Camp iRock. It’s part summer camp, part school and has won awards for improving students’ reading levels and making reading fun. Normally, Camp iRock students meet five days a week for six to eight weeks to go on field trips, play games and read together.

With COVID-19 precautions, Capaldi didn’t know how it would be possible, so they restructured and hosted 130 students virtually. It was better than they expected. The students met four days a week through video calls – first as a large group then breaking into smaller groups for reading. To make it fun, they’d play games, spin prize wheels and ask students what they wanted to learn about. When a student wanted to learn about horseback riding, Capaldi went to her pasture and recorded a smartphone video about her horses. Another wanted to know about blacksmithing, so they found a blacksmith who spoke to the class.

They must make it work, she said, because studies show students who aren’t reading at level by the

Camp iRock - packing books
Duke Energy Oconee Nuclear Station employee Melissa Yeoh and her daughter, Maggie Nimmons, 7, packed literacy kits that the company donated to Camp iRock.

end of third grade are more likely to struggle through the remainder of their schooling and into adulthood.

More than 1,200 students have participated since Camp iRock started in 2015, and Capaldi said they are nearing their goal of at least 70 percent of Pickens County third graders reading at grade level by 2025. Last year, Camp iRock students improved their reading levels by 78 percent.

Capaldi said the program is successful because of the teachers and partnerships in the community. Students do not pay for Camp iRock, so the camp is funded through the United Way’s grants and donations. Schools provide teachers and camp counselors, and businesses, including Duke Energy, provide grants and donate supplies. Duke Energy has given nearly $200,000 to Camp iRock since its second year. And, employees at Oconee Nuclear Station assemble literacy kits for students. This year, employees took materials home to assemble kits. Each child was provided with a book, reading comprehension matierals and creative activities. This year, books included “Pete the Cat: Pete’s Big Lunch” for and “The Unlucky Lottery Winners of Classroom 13.”

“I have missed being part of Oconee (Nuclear Station)’s active group of volunteers during the COVID-19 social distancing, but I was excited when I heard about this opportunity to pack literacy kits from home with my family. I was also glad to see many other volunteers and their families giving their time to this worthy cause,” said Melissa Yeoh, a Duke Energy employee at Oconee Nuclear Station. “My daughter, Maggie, and I enjoyed packing the kits and knowing children at Camp iRock would love reading the book and doing the activities in the kits. It is important to make reading fun to encourage literacy among young readers.”

In July, Camp iRock hosted a modified eight-day, in-person camp option in Easley and Liberty in addition to the virtual camp. Thirty students attended at each site, and Capaldi said she was amazed at how happy the students were to be back in a classroom.

“They know what social distancing is, they know about wearing masks,” Capaldi said, “and I guess I worried about nothing because they’re so excited about being in school.”

It gave her hope for the coming school year. Sargent said she’s hopeful, too, and appreciates the work staff put into making Camp iRock a great experience. But, the biggest excitement, Sargent said, was watching Makenzie read and knowing that when the school year starts, Makenzie won’t be behind. She still has work to do, but Sargent thinks she will thrive.


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