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More Of That, Please: Youth Outreach Where It's Needed Most

Sarah poses with tree
Bloomington-Normal YMCA
Sarah Tunall is director of youth development at the Bloomington-Normal YMCA.

Like many people living in Bloomington-Normal, Sarah Tunall is a transplant. She grew up in Oregon and has only been here about five years.

But in those five years, she’s done more for Bloomington-Normal than many townies have done in their whole lifetime here.

Tunall is now director of youth development at the Bloomington-Normal YMCA. This summer she's doing two new things. First is a special summer day camp just for kids from Woodhill Towers public housing and the Home Sweet Home shelter. For $5, they'll get all the experiences of a much more expensive summer camp—swimming, games, time with other kids.

Tunall herself spent her childhood summers at day camps, overnight camps, and vacation bible school.

“It was formative in who I am. It’s extremely formative in how a kid handles relationships and conflict, and how they learn about themselves and who they are,” she said. “I know that kids from lower-income families, and kids who are experiencing homelessness, don’t have those same opportunities. We are literally across the street from public housing and Home Sweet Home. And so we have the resources, the people, and opportunity to provide that experience for kids, so they can taste something different than they’ve ever tasted before.”

The counselors leading that three-day camp in July will be special too.

They'll be the YMCA’s LEAD Campers, a new program Tunall is spearheading for high schoolers who want to one day work with kids but need a little mentorship first.

“They’ll learn how to lead games, how to do public speaking. We’ll do a couple of college visits. And it’s just an opportunity for them to grow as individuals, to get to play some this summer, and it looks really good on their resumes for the future,” Tunall said.

Creating youth outreach programs is kind of Tunall’s thing.

A couple years ago while working as associate pastor at Second Presbyterian, she led the creation of the Northwest Neighborhood Community Center (NNCC) in west Bloomington. She said that experience taught her a lot about her new hometown.

“People have a desire to serve and help others. Whether that’s their neighbor, whether that’s east side-west side, or Normal-Bloomington,” she said. “People get excited about a cause. And so it’s been fun to watch. That’s what I really learned while working at NNCC and even here at the YMCA. All you have to do is share a story and people here in Bloomington are all about being part of that story. That’s a really unique and cool thing.”

She can create all the youth programs she likes, but she still needs to get kids to show up. And that's gotten really hard. Her biggest competitor is Fortnite.

But Tunall knows what can happen when an adult invests in a kid like this. And her kids need it.

“Often we look at kids who come from west Bloomington and we’re like, ‘Oh, they’re trouble,’ or ‘Oh, they’re poor.’ Or because of whatever background they’re from, they’re different from me. The reality is, kids have a future and have a hope, and we get to be part of that. No matter where they come from, no matter their socioeconomic status, the color of their skin, their religion—every kid brings something to the table,” Tunall said. “It’s how do we as adults learn from them and grow from them.”

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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