Lowell Youth Leadership Program Provides Free Summer Camp to 150 Underserved Kids
By Ed Brennen
Pinballing from table to table under a giant white tent outside Greater Lowell Technical High School, Sam Hor ’16 grinned from ear to ear and high-fived young campers as they refueled on a lunch of meatball subs and sliced watermelon.
As vice president of the Lowell Youth Leadership Program (LYLP), a nonprofit organization that he and several other UML alumni started two years ago, Hor could see himself in many of the 150 kids enrolled in this summer’s free 3½-week camp.
Growing up in the projects of Lowell, Hor found direction through the National Youth Sports Program (NYSP), a federally funded initiative administered by the NCAA that provided underserved kids with six weeks of free summer camp at more than 200 colleges and universities — including UMass Lowell.
“The first day I came to camp, it was different,” says Hor, a Cambodian refugee who was 10 at the time. “They served us breakfast — oatmeal and buttered toast. It sounds normal, but it was a new experience for me. I realized that there is more out there in the world.”
Hor returned to the free six-week camp on the UML campus every summer until he was old enough to become a counselor. After graduating from Lowell High School, he got his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from UMass Amherst before landing a job as a math teacher back at Lowell High. In 2016, he earned a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from UMass Lowell.
Meanwhile, in 2007, the NYSP lost its federal funding and shut down across the country, much to the dismay of Hor and countless others who had benefited from the program.
“The kids need something to get them off the street and get them motivated,” says Hor, who would occasionally talk with an old friend from the camp, Larry Wilson, about recreating a similar program in Lowell.
Three years ago, they “got serious” and pitched their idea to their former NYSP director, Ed Scollan ’76. Scollan, a history and secondary education alum who coached basketball and taught at Westford Academy, had helped former UML Athletic Director Dana Skinner and Prof. Emeritus of Psychology Jon Hellstedt launch the NYSP in Lowell in 1991. Scollan served as director of the program for 16 of its 17 years.
Intrigued by his former campers’ idea, Scollan brought in several more UML alumni, including Jim McCusker ’78 and his wife, Lisa Ansara ’86, an adjunct faculty member in the Psychology Department. Neither had been involved with the NYSP, but McCusker, an accounting alum, had recently sold his financial planning and investment firm and was “looking for something that gave me purpose besides playing golf.”
That something is the LYLP, a volunteer-driven nonprofit designed to help kids become self-confident, socially connected community leaders. The program launched last year with a free, 2½-week summer camp for 100 kids, ages 10-16, at Greater Lowell Tech. This summer’s camp expanded to 150 kids over 3½ weeks.
Wilson is president of the LYLP board, and Hor is vice president. UML alumni Don Dooley ’85, ’05 and Christina Nikitopoulos ’94, ’20 are also board members.
“One of the most satisfying things about the LYLP is to see these people, who met when they were 10-year-old kids, now in their mid-30s and running the program,” Scollan says of Wilson and Hor. “Our slogan is ‘The Legacy of Leadership,’ and they are wonderful examples of that.”
Campers are provided bus transportation each day, as well as breakfast and lunch. While most of the instructors volunteer their time, the camp’s dozen counselors and half-dozen lifeguards (for swim lessons in the Olympic-size pool) are paid.
To cover its first year of expenses, the LYLP raised over $27,000 on GoFundMe, solicited corporate donations and held a fundraiser. McCusker, who manages the finances, applied for and received several grants for the program, including one from the Independent University Alumni Association to fund the camp’s robotics program.
While the camp is now held at Greater Lowell Tech (“The pool was a big factor,” McCusker says), there are still River Hawk ties. UML men’s basketball players teach classes in the gym, and three of Ansara’s psychology students — rising seniors Kiani Garabito and Deja Por and rising junior James Chong — are working as counselors this summer.
“We wanted that college atmosphere for our kids, and UMass Lowell has been a big proponent of what we’re doing,” says Hor, who still remembers discovering UML as an NYSP camper. “That was the first time a lot of us were on a college campus. We didn’t know what college was. It got us thinking about the future.”
Ansara, LYLP’s executive director, grew up in Lowell’s Acre neighborhood, where “we had nothing like this; we hung out on the street,” she says.
When the buses started pulling up for the first day of camp last year, her heart was pounding.
“We worked so hard to get this camp put together, not really knowing what we were doing,” she says. “By the end of the first day, the kids didn’t want to leave. It was amazing.”