JR Russell Magic performs for a group of youth during a back-to-school event
at Bellis Fair mall Tuesday, Aug. 15. 
(Sophia Nunn/Cascadia Daily News)

Staff Reporter AUGUST 17, 2023

Joyous laughter echoed across the metal beams and concrete floors of the Bellis Fair food court during a Tuesday, Aug. 15 back-to-school event organized by the mall.  

For a few hours, YMCA summer camp kids ages 5–7 enjoyed a magic show, a pizza-making lesson from the recently opened Natalino’s Pizza, and storytime. At the end of the event, the children were given a school supply bag consisting of pencils, markers, erasers, glue sticks, a notebook and a plush doll, courtesy of the mall. 

Bellis Fair mall hired JR Russell, a retired U.S. Air Force pilot and owner of JR Russell Magic, to provide the entertainment. Russell said the key to putting on a magic show for young kids is an engaging back-and-forth element. 

For YMCA camp counselor Lena Bowe, engagement through fun activities such as the mall’s event is how kids learn social skills and emotional maturity, which is important for an age group that started kindergarten during the COVID-19 lockdowns. 

“I think it’s really great for them to have an opportunity to be in a big group setting with a bunch of other kids doing activities,” Bowe said. 

The YMCA serves all families in Whatcom County, but offers assistance to low-income families in the form of the state’s Working Connections Child Care subsidy benefits or through a direct scholarship program, said Shannon Millican, Whatcom YMCA Elementary & Teen Program director. 

“Our summer camps enrollment serves 35 to 40 percent [of kids] that are either subsidized by the state or on scholarship with the YMCA,” Millican said. 

The YMCA doesn’t have a cap on how many low-income families participate in their programs and most of their groups consist of mixed-income families, such as those who attended the back-to-school day event, Millican added. 

The summer camp operates out of the Alderwood and Happy Valley elementary schools, said Kelsey Melvin, program supervisor for Whatcom Family YMCA who also goes by Sunflower during summer camp.

Children laugh at JR Russell the magician, as they play a magical game of rock, paper, scissors.
(Sophia Nunn/Cascadia Daily News) 

The counselors’ nicknames are easier to remember for the kids and provide an extra layer of privacy, said Bowe, who goes by the nickname Squirtle.

“All counselors have camp nicknames, so the kids don’t know anyone’s real names until the end of summer if counselors choose to tell them,” Bowe said. 

Bowe added the YMCA currently has a waitlist for kids to join due to lack of staff, so they are looking for workers to join the organization so they can let in more kids. Registration is open for age-specific fall camps and some before/after school programs at the YMCA website.