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Dreams realized at Penn State New Kensington's Kids in College camps

Emily Balser
| Monday, June 30, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
Ciarra Brothers, 6, of Lower Burrell participates in a dance rehearsal during the Kids in College camp at the Penn State New Kensington campus in Upper Burrell on Thursday, June 26, 2014.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Ciarra Brothers, 6, of Lower Burrell participates in a dance rehearsal during the Kids in College camp at the Penn State New Kensington campus in Upper Burrell on Thursday, June 26, 2014.

Ten-year-old Georgia Brothers has wanted to be the lead in a play since she started coming to Penn State New Kensington's Kids in College theater camp three years ago, and this year it's finally happening.

Brothers, who will be in fifth grade at Burrell's Stewart Elementary School, was cast as Fiona in this year's production of “Shrek the Musical.”

“It has always been my dream to be the lead,” she said.

The theater camp is just one of 40 offered through the Kids in College program, which runs through July. Each camp lasts about a week and is offered for students in first through 11th grades.

“The overall goal is to offer a quality class where they can learn and have fun,” said Debbie Novak, youth program director at the Upper Burrell campus.

Many camps require early registration and have wait lists, but some still have spots available.

Prices for camps range from $90 to $195. Scholarships to pay for one camp per student are available if they qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

“They do fill up,” Novak said. “We have people calling, actually, in March that know we are offering certain classes.”

The theater camp is held from June 16 to July 2. It's one of the earliest and longest of the camps, running 2 12 weeks. It has a large number of students participating, so it's broken down into two groups. Students in second through fifth grades are in one group, and students in sixth through 11th grades are in another.

Brothers said she loves coming to the camp and learning about acting.

“You get to dance and act and use props,” Brothers said. “It's just so cool.”

Elizabeth Lagattuta, 8, has been cast as Mama Bear and is looking forward to being in the production.

“It's fun,” she said. “You feel like you're really on Broadway.”

This is Lagattuta's second year at theater camp. Her interest started before she was old enough to participate because she would watch her older sisters perform in the camp productions.

“I was so excited when I was finally old enough to do it,” she said.

STEAM theme

This year's theme is STEAM, which focuses on camps related to science, technology, engineering, art and math. The main focus of a lot of the camps held in July will be on technology and the environment.

“We're trying to (get the kids to) learn a little bit more about the environment and things we can do at home,” Novak said.

Camps related to the environment will be “How does your garden grow?” and “Backyard biodiversity: Butterflies to wildflowers.”

The camps are taught by teachers from area schools. College students are hired to be counselors, and teens are used as volunteers.

Joe Truesdell, 47, theater teacher at North Allegheny High School, and Jen Lavella, 29, theater teacher at Hampton High School, are leading the theater camp this year. The pair has been working with the camp since 2003.

They enjoy seeing the students progress each year and come out of their shell.

“The shy ones come a long way,” Truesdell said. “It's really good for them.”

The teachers are excited to be putting on “Shrek the Musical” because it's different from other productions they've done.

“It's a modern show and something that a lot of the kids came in knowing,” Lavella said. “The music also has a more modern twist.”

Recent Burrell High School graduate Mackenzie Fox, 18, is volunteering with the theater camp for the first time this year, after participating for the past 13 years.

She has conflicted feelings about making the change.

“It's better because I have more control over what goes on, but when I'm doing the dance, I'd rather be in the show,” she said.

For Fox, the theater camp instilled a love for the craft in her, which she will carry on as she heads off to college.

“I'm going to New York Film Academy in New York City,” she said. “I'm going there for four weeks to try it out, and then I will come back and I can either go for two years or four years.”

Fox said if it wasn't for going to the camp all these years, she might not be pursuing this career path.

Penn State New Kensington senior Kelsie Fury, 21, has been a counselor with the camps for five years and has watched campgoers like Fox expand their talent and make lasting friendships.

“There are a lot of different school districts that these students come from, so you see a lot of friendships that are made,” she said. “I think it's interesting how the kids meet and stay in touch just from one week of camp.”

Fury believes the Kids in College camps provide a positive environment for students during their summer break.

“I just think it's a good experience for the kids,” she said. “It's something different besides just going to a day care for the day. They get something educational and have fun.”

Emily Balser is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-7710 or

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