Students in the Genesis summer program listen in at story time at Marist High School in Eugene. (Courtesy Marist High School)
Students in the Genesis summer program listen in at story time at Marist High School in Eugene. (Courtesy Marist High School)

EUGENE — The pandemic gave new urgency to the work done in the Genesis program at Marist High School this summer.

“And we felt an urgency before,” said Bill Ferrari, a teacher at Marist and director of the effort.

Genesis is a free seven-week summer camp for kids living in poverty in the Eugene area. In 2018, the founders intended to provide reading instruction but now include additional enrichment like math, art, yoga and a Pixar conversation class — a class for students to watch a Pixar short film and then discuss it with each other.

Each day, students arrive on campus for breakfast. Then they have four academic blocks throughout the day, all of which are separated by 15 minute breaks for recess or lunch. Two of the blocks focus on reading and the other two on classes that support the overall goal of improving learning.

Some of the students Marist hosted over the summer hadn’t been in school for 16 months.

“We were very concerned about what that meant in terms of their academic development,” said Ferrari. The team aimed to make the program as school-like as possible. “It was imperative that we operate at the highest level we could.”

In that, they succeeded. The program averaged 64 students on campus each day and had 80 students finish. It’s the highest number of students the program has served.

“Our students in grades pre-K through fourth grade saw an average increase of 21 correct words per minute from their initial reading assessment in June to the final assessment in August,” Ferrari said. “Our middle school students saw an average increase of 27 correct words per minute this summer.”

The program served 2,534 meals, which was possible because of a partnership with FOOD for Lane County, the area food bank.

Students got more than meals and academic support. The program provided bus transportation for many.  

The Genesis staff is made up of local teachers as well as former Marist students now in college and teachers from the University of Oregon’s School of Education.

“We have a really talented teaching staff,” Ferrari said.

Despite the pandemic, the staff — many of whom have been working with the project for multiple years — knew what they wanted the students to learn and how to reach them. Some of the students, too, have returned for multiple years, adding stability to the program.

“We have good adults working with good kids and it just makes for a very happy and productive school day every day,” Ferrari explained.

Marist’s devotion to the project hasn’t waned over the years.

“We feel called toward this program,” said Ferrari. He and the other staff see a need to support what he called “incredibly fragile and vulnerable children in our community.”

“We’re trying to serve God through this program,” he said. “When we have as many kids as we did this summer, it validates that the mission is real and necessary.”