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Lessons from the pandemic: What virtual summer camps, programs taught Greensboro arts organizations

GREENSBORO — The normally noisy, active Greensboro Cultural Center is quiet on this weekday summer morning.

In a studio empty of children at the GreenHill Center for North Carolina Art, education director Jaymie Meyer opens her week-long virtual summer camp for pre-kindergartners.

She uses her laptop, an overhead camera, her art supplies and expertise — and the internet.

“Good morning!” she welcomes the session’s lone online participant, 4-year-old Caroline.

Meyer will record today’s live session. Several child care centers and others enrolled can use the recorded content at their convenience.

This camp will focus on The Big Backyard. Today, Meyer will read the book, “From Caterpillar to Butterfly” and demonstrate how campers can make a butterfly feeder from a paper plate, pipe cleaners, string and beads.

The COVID-19 pandemic has driven many local arts summer camps such as GreenHill’s completely online.

Virtual camps use online platforms such as Zoom or other video-conferencing to connect with children and teens in their homes via the internet.

“We just took what we were going to do anyway and turned it into a virtual camp,” Meyer said.

Arts organizations learned lessons along the way, too.

Because the internet has no geographic boundaries, some camps attracted participants from as far as Raleigh and other states.

Early technical glitches plagued some camps initially. But organizations learned more about using technology in their future programs.

The Eastern Music Festival will consider hosting more free online conversations and seminars during its off-season.

Dance Project found its virtual summer classes for older or advanced students well attended. But many camps and some classes for younger students didn’t get enough enrollment to justify offering them, said Anne Morris, executive director.

“As we look toward our fall session, we are considering what families want for their students right now — mental and physical well-being, social relationships, creative outlets — and how our dance classes can provide those things in meaningful ways,” Morris said.

Here is a sample of arts organizations and their virtual summer camp experiences.

GreenHill Center for North Carolina Art

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, GreenHill faced the prospect of canceling its summer camps.

Instead, the nonprofit that hosts art exhibitions and programs took camps online, with Meyer and Kate Roche teaching.

They bring live, online theme-based activities into homes of children ages pre-K through sixth grade, divided by age group.

To make it easier for children and parents, GreenHill offered art boxes containing all supplies, instructions and hand-outs ready to go for an additional fee.

With a $15,000 grant from The Cemala Foundation and $1,000 from Truist Bank, GreenHill expanded the camps’ reach.

They serve seven child care programs and the Guilford County Schools Summer Institute without charge, said Barbara Richter, GreenHill executive director.

GreenHill distributed art supplies for more than 150 children for five week-long camps, with the understanding that they could use the materials and instructions at their convenience or join live each day, Meyer said. Most have indicated that they are doing it daily on their own schedule.

“Typically our capacity is 15 in our studios for a weekly camp,” Richter said. “We are currently engaging between 140 and 150 kids every week. That’s 10 times the number that we would typically enroll.”

The virtual camps have attracted children from other parts of the state, and as far as Washington, D.C., and Michigan, Richter said.

That all has taught GreenHill the benefits of having a virtual component.

“It can amplify what we do physically in our galleries,” Richter said.

To learn more, click on the Virtual Summer Camps link at

Creative Greensboro

The city’s theater program — formerly known as The Drama Center, now part of Creative Greensboro — offered week-long virtual summer camps for ages 7 to 15 through Friday.

Each group met on Zoom for an hour on weekdays.

One week offered Monsters and Witches-themed camps, with a one-hour virtual horror makeup session.

This week’s pirate-themed camps included a one-hour pirate costume-making session.

But it took a financial hit, said Rosina Whitfield, the city drama specialist who led camps with Todd Fisher.

The city charged $45 per week, much less than the usual $250 for a week-long day camp from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It also offered private instruction in acting techniques for $25 an hour.

“Although not ideal, we met the challenge of this new reality,” Whitfield said. “Our programs are providing a creative outlet for those of all ages who love the theater.”

“But I can’t wait to get everybody back in the theater,” Whitfield said.

Eastern Music Festival

The Eastern Music Festival created online programming to help compensate for the loss of its 2020 summer season.

From June 29 through Friday, 59 faculty musicians offered virtual master classes and lessons for 100 young artists from 31 states, plus free online concerts and conversations for students and the public.

Typically, more than 200 music students from around the globe come to Greensboro to study with EMF’s acclaimed faculty and guest artists.

Not this summer.

“It was important for EMF to stay connected to our students and patrons,” said Kelly Swindell, media and communications director.

“It has not been a one-to-one replacement for what we do well every summer,” she said. “We have learned that we were able to pivot to the online space and it was necessary for us to stay in the game.”

EMF learned lessons in the process.

It takes more time to prepare for and run an online class than expected. Breaks between online sessions avoid screen time burnout.

Live-streamed concerts can still encounter glitches. Musical performances work best when prerecorded and edited into a concert. Conversations and seminars work well in a live format; audiences appreciate the authenticity, Swindell said.

“This gives us good data for considering hosting more free online conversations and seminars during the off-season of EMF,” Swindell said. “There’s also an opportunity to engage with younger audiences that are enjoying the free online resources and content.”

The videos of EMF Conversations seminars will stay on EMF’s Facebook page at The chamber concerts and Behind the Baton videos will remain on EMF’s YouTube channel at

Triad Stage

This year’s Summer Performance Academy went virtual for Triad Stage.

The downtown professional theater hired four teaching artists to conduct six camps using Zoom for students in first through 12th grade.

So far, camps have attracted 41 students — with enrollment continuing to rise for next week’s camp.

Some students were regulars. Others joined from as far as Raleigh — campers who wouldn’t have made the trip by car.

One camp was particularly timely: Arts for Change. Through image work, poetry, newspaper theater and storytelling, the students worked through their feelings about COVID-19, the current protests and schools closing.

An August camp for grades 4 through 8 will focus on voice and movement.

Triad Stage has not previously offered a camp this late in the summer. “But we’ve had such a positive response from families who are telling us this is just the creative outlet their students need,” said Dani Keil, learning director.

What works? Building an ensemble online.

“These young creatives were hungry to be together and work together,” Keil said. “We’d put them in breakout rooms to work in small groups and when the teaching artists stop in to check on them, we see them smiling, laughing together, supporting each other.”

As a result, she expanded classes from one hour to 90 minutes, and next week, two hours.

“The students go for it,” she said. “They don’t seem to hold back just because they’re sitting at their kitchen table.”

But Keil does not plan to keep a virtual component in summer camps when the theater can safely return to in-person programming.

“Families appreciate the virtual learning opportunity, the community and a creative outlet right now,” she said. “But they are looking forward to being in-person again.”

Want to learn more about the Summer Performance Academy? Click on the Learning link at

Greensboro Children’s Museum

The museum started its summer camps online in June, with the hope that they could return to in-person camps by August.

But with COVID-19 spreading, staffers realized that couldn’t happen.

“Having to close our facility really pushed us to focus on our online content, which is an important part of reaching a broader audience,” said Stephanie Ashton, education director.

Families can engage with the museum in two ways:

Find free content through Explorer at Home at

  • , available on the museum website and social media platforms.
  • Purchase Summer Explorer Kits at

  • , ranging in price from $75 to $110 for a week of activities. The pre-assembled kits of materials and instructions followed summer camp themes. Families can participate at their own pace or with the museum’s online activities using Zoom.

Families can either buy a standalone kit, or a kit plus the online small group sessions led by museum educators.

”So much of what we do centers around in-person relationship building and hands-on experiences with kids,” Ashton said. “We had to think strategically about how to translate some of that into either content that families are experiencing on their own, or through virtual meetings with kids using platforms like Zoom.”

They found that it was better for children to connect and learn online briefly each day than longer and less frequent online tutorials.

But the nonprofit museum has suffered financially this spring and summer, with the loss of after-school programs and in-person day camps. Administrators worry about how to continue to retain and pay the workforce.

Revenue from Summer Explorer kits helped offset some losses. “But it brings in a fraction of the income we had budgeted for,” Ashton said.

The children’s enthusiasm for online programming and explorer kits has lifted staffers’ spirits.

“We have found a lot of joy in creating this content and meeting kids on Zoom,” Ashton said. “Their enthusiasm for everything from dinosaur species to crafting is contagious.”

Greensboro Ballet

Like the Greensboro Children’s Museum, Greensboro Ballet had hoped to move online summer camps back to its studios in August.

Now it aims to reopen studios for classes on Sept. 14.

It will likely retain a virtual class for those who aren’t ready to return, said Jennifer Gentry, interim executive director.

In the meantime, instructors teach using Zoom from the ballet’s studios in the downtown Greensboro Cultural Center, wearing masks and keeping social distance.

They broadcast classes through the ballet’s Facebook, Instagram Live and YouTube pages.

Classes resume Aug. 10.

The ballet faced challenges in teaching online.

Camps for ages 3 to 6 are typically full each summer. But it’s difficult to keep 3 and 4 year olds focused on a screen. “Some of the parents said, ‘We gave up...’” Gentry said.

Attendance declined, and revenue dropped by 75% from a typical summer.

Luckily, donations have helped to fill the gap.

High school dancers often don’t have space at home to do the big, fast moves of grand allegro. Instead, instructors have taught exercises that stretch and strengthen their feet, ankles and core.

It’s been difficult for older students in another way: They miss their dance friends, with whom they typically spend up to six days each week, Gentry said.

Eve Hatcher Peters has danced with Greensboro Ballet for nine of her 14 years.

It’s all online for now. She uses a bedroom chair as her barre, a handrail for ballet exercises.

“It was really weird taking classes online because so much of dance is physical interaction and observing others,” Eve said.

Although she appreciated the more flexible schedule, she said, “I didn’t like not being able to talk to my friends... I much prefer dance in person.”

Learn more about Greensboro Ballet’s programs at

Fisherman in Morocco finds message in a bottle from Greensboro Day School student

GREENSBORO — After voyaging across the Atlantic Ocean for more than a year, a bottled message from a Greensboro Day School student landed more than 4,000 miles away.

Student Vivian Byerly now knows what happened to her bottled letter because she received a reply to it Sunday.

The letter’s journey began in April 2019 when Vivian and her classmates, now rising fifth graders, sealed personalized messages in glass bottles to send out to sea.

In Vivian’s letter, she told the future reader her name and that she was a third grader at Greensboro Day School. She included her teacher’s name and email address, along with the school’s address.

“If you find this message, please let us know,” Vivian wrote. Her classmates included the same plea in their letters, but Vivian customized her message with a drawing of a ship and an inspiring quote of her choice from an unknown author.

The messages, which were tightly rolled up and packed into their own glass bottle, were part of third grade teacher Susan Ferguson’s lesson about the powerful Gulf Steam that flows off the state’s coast, inspired by “Pirate Day” festivities at the private school in Greensboro. It was the first time Ferguson taught the lesson and included the messages in bottles.

Tyler Richardson, whose son Brant was another one of Ferguson’s 19 students that year, offered to toss the bottles into the Atlantic Ocean during an annual fishing tournament in May that year off the coast of Morehead City.

The sport-fishing boat Carterican “caught” one of the bottled messages soon after the tournament.

After that — nothing. Vivian and her classmates moved on to fourth grade.

The COVID-19 pandemic kept Ferguson’s most recent class of students from doing the same project, but 18 bottles from Vivian and Brant’s class presumably remained at sea, searching for a shore with a reader curious enough to crack open a mysterious bottle.

Then, on Sunday, Ferguson received an email.

Attached to it was a photo of a glass bottle on a beach, a letter bound with a ribbon peeking out the top. In another photo, a fisherman is pictured beside his nephew, holding a copy of Vivian’s letter.

Her letter traveled more than 4,000 miles across the ocean before it was discovered on White Beach near Guelmim, Morocco, a country in northwestern Africa that abuts the Atlantic Ocean.

“While we hoped to receive a response, we know the likelihood of it happening is slim,” Ferguson said in a news release from Greensboro Day School. “I was shocked to open my email to find an email with photos.”

Ferguson said she has been in touch with Vivian’s third grade classmates, who were excited to learn the news. She said Vivian responded to the fisherman’s family and received another reply.

According to Greensboro Day School, the fisherman’s nephew had to translate the letter for his uncle, including the quote Vivian started it with:

“Be strong because things will get better,” she wrote. “It may be stormy now, but it never rains forever.”

An interesting article in today's newspaper

John Neville's children want people to remember their father was a human being, not a hashtag.

WINSTON-SALEM — When Brienne Neville said her final words to her father, John Elliott Neville, she wasn’t sure he heard her. He had been in a coma at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

But she said she believes he did. When doctors finally stopped life support, tears ran down her father’s face.

“That might be a natural reaction,” she said in regard to the withdrawal of life support. “For all of us, (we felt) he knew that was the end of his time. ... We felt like he heard all the words we said and he knew it was goodbye.”

Brienne Neville said she wants people to know the man she knew, the man who was almost never without a basketball in his hand, the man who was a fervent fan of the UNC Tar Heels men’s basketball team, who loved Jamaican food and who danced whenever he could.

John Neville, who was living in Greensboro at the time of his death, was born in Chapel Hill but grew up in Winston-Salem, living in a two-bedroom house off Northwest Boulevard with his grandmother. He played basketball at Hanes Hosiery Recreation Center, volunteered for a period of time in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina hit and worked in construction.

“He wasn’t perfect. He was human,” she said. “He enjoyed life.”

John Neville was 56 when he died on Dec. 4, 2019, from injuries he suffered days earlier while an inmate at the Forsyth County jail. He died of a brain injury caused when his heart stopped and he was deprived of oxygen, according to his autopsy report. It said he asphyxiated while he was in a hog-tie restraint position with his arms behind his back and his legs folded up behind his buttocks.

According to three independent sources familiar with the investigation into Neville’s death, he told detention officers at least 10 8 times that he could not breathe, and at least twice, the response from detention officers was, “Come on, buddy, if you can talk, you can breathe.”

Michael Grace, an attorney for the Nevillle family, said Nevillle uttered the phrase “I can’t breathe” 24 times.

Five people who were detention officers at the time but fired afterward, and a contract nurse have been charged with involuntary manslaughter in Neville’s death.

The Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office did not publicly acknowledge Neville’s death until June 26, after questioning from the Winston-Salem Journal. Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough Jr. said he kept the matter quiet primarily because of a request from the family. On Friday, a judge ruled in favor of publicly releasing video footage of what happened at the jail that led to Neville’s death. The family sent out a statement this week supporting the release, and his five children attended a hearing on the issue Wednesday in Forsyth Superior Court.

Demonstrations have erupted over Neville’s death, with protesters demanding answers about the incident from Kimbrough and Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill and accusing them of covering up Neville’s death, a claim both men have denied. The Triad Abolition Project and the Unity Coalition have held all-day occupy-like events at Bailey Park on the eastern edge of downtown since July 15, and 55 people have been arrested and charged with impeding traffic during protests downtown and in front of the sheriff’s office.

On Thursday afternoon, Brienne Neville, wearing a black shirt with the words “My father is not a #hashtag” on the front, sat with brother Kristopher Brown-Neville and stepsister Sierra Gulley under a tent at Bailey Park with members of Triad Abolition Project and the Unity Coalition. Sean Neville, Natasha Martin and Tre Stubbs are the other three of John Neville’s children.

Brienne and other family members have said they have appreciated the support and activism surrounding what happened to their father.

When he was young, John Neville experienced physical abuse from a relative, Brown-Neville and Brienne Neville said.

And his mother died when he was a teenager.

“I think our dad was a prime case of somebody who needed help because of trauma as a child” but never received it, Brienne Neville said. “His struggle was that he wanted those things but didn’t know how to get those things.”

Gulley said their father could cook almost anything. Their brother Sean Neville, who is the executor of his father’s estate, picked up his father’s cooking skills and is now a chef, they said.

But more important to Gulley was that John Neville was more of a father to her than her biological father. She is having a hard time explaining what happened to Neville to her 12-year-old daughter.

“How could you ... why would you disrespect a human being like that,” Gulley asked.

For the past several months, the family didn’t say anything publicly about the incident, choosing to privately grieve and seek justice for their father.

It was hard.

Brienne Neville said that after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis in May, the result of a police officer pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while he was already in custody, it took her awhile before she could watch the cellphone video of what happened. She watched a few minutes of it and it tore her up emotionally, she said.

It was only a month ago that she saw video footage of what happened to her father — a week or two before O’Neill announced criminal charges. But before then, it was a waiting game until the autopsy report was completed. Brienne Neville said she understood that O’Neill needed to wait for those results. Otherwise, he couldn’t determine the cause of death and couldn’t pursue any potential criminal charges.

She was surprised charges were filed.

“You have to go into it prepared for the worst with no expectations for the best,” she said.

And now as protests continue, the family continues to grieve for the man whose name is shouted out, the man they knew as their father.

“It’s like ripping a band-aid off and you’re pulling the scab with it and you’re opening that wound up,” she said.

In a way, they’re still saying goodbye.