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Summer camp at Ridgewater College in Willmar, Minn., provides career exploration

Marsha Anderson, of Equul Access Inc. of Hutchinson, right, talks to students Tuesday about her therapy horse Sweetie. Middle school students learned about therapy animals as a part of Ridgewater College’s summer college camp, designed to expose youth to a variety of educational and career paths. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR - They have plenty of time to plan their futures, but 27 Willmar-area students are spending this week at Ridgewater College exploring their future career options.

Ridgewater College Summer Camp, which focuses on a wide array of careers, leadership, team building and sportsmanship, runs through Thursday at Ridgewater College's Willmar campus.

"It's so important to have children step foot on campus before they're even thinking about college," Tari Niemeyer, camp director, said. "When I hear them say the phrase 'when I go to college,' it's such a great thing. The camp is part of the culture of Ridgewater communities."

The camp, which is in its tenth year of operation, offers students entering grades 5-8 hands-on sessions in a variety of career fields, including electronics, science, writing, computers, health care, photography, horticulture, auto mechanics, animal therapy, painting and Native American and multicultural studies. The sessions are taught by a mix of Ridgewater instructors and community experts.

"I try to have a mix of classes that show careers that require a college degree and some that don't," Niemeyer said.

One of the classes offered Tuesday was "How can animals help people and where do I sign up?" The class focused on dogs and horses being used for therapy and was taught by Sherry Eddy of Animal Inspirations and Marsha Anderson of Equul Access, Inc., both of Hutchinson.

Ashley Olson, 13, and Isaac Malone, 12, both from Willmar and students attending the camp, said the animal therapy class was their favorite so far.

"I signed up for the camp to see what I want to do in college," Ashley said. "This class is my favorite so far because I really like animals."

Isaac said he liked the animal therapy class for the same reason as Ashley.

"My friends did the camp last year, so I told my mom I would do it this year," he said. "I like this class (animal therapy) because it's outside and I like the animals."

Elise Vomacka, 12, of Willmar, chose a different session as her favorite.

"I signed up for the camp to learn more about what I want to do when I'm older," she said. "I really like the health care class. It was really interesting to see what doctors and nurses actually do all day."

The students' reasons for signing up for the camp are exactly the reasons that Niemeyer said it's important for this age group of youth to attend a career exploration camp.

"At this age, their futures are wide open, and we're exposing them to what their futures could be," Niemeyer said. "They're so creative right now and so open to their futures. The more we give them the opportunity to learn, the more they'll explore what they love to do so they'll be happy adults."

The Ridgewater Summer Camp Showcase will be held at 3:30 p.m. Thursday in Ridgewater College's Large Outreach Room, showcasing the camp's displays and projects from the week.