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For one Austin summer camp, public transit is part of the adventure

Camp counselor Tyler Grosvenor smiles while sitting on the bus, surrounded by campers talking to each other.
Manoo Sirivelu
KUT News
ATX Kids Club's summer camp uses CapMetro buses as its main form of transportation.

If you ask Ada what she likes about summer camp, the 6-year-old won’t talk about the friends she’s met, the games she’s played or the new places she’s explored.

Instead, she’ll talk about how she likes riding the bus. Not the school bus — a public one.

“We get to see a lot of things out the window,” she said. “Some cars and some trees and some buildings.”

She’s not the only camper who feels this way. Tammy Miller, founder of ATX Kids Club, said “over 90% of the kids will tell you that their favorite part of ATX Kids Club is riding the bus.”

That’s the program’s goal: getting kids to have fun on public transit so they’ll grow up using it. The nonprofit’s summer camp, which takes kids ages 4 to 12 on field trip “adventures” around the city, uses Capital Metro buses as its main form of transportation.

Field trip leader Tyler Grosvenor shows Jude (center) and Liam, ages 6 and 4, their route to Waterloo Park.
Manoo Sirivelu
KUT News
Field trip leader Tyler Grosvenor uses his phone to show Jude (center) and Liam, ages 6 and 4, their route. The campers are heading from Pease Park to Waterloo Park.

Miller, who has taught in schools in three states over 20 years, started ATX Kids Club in 2014 after realizing many of her students in Austin hadn’t explored the city beyond their own neighborhoods. When she spoke to adults here, she was surprised by the negative attitudes she encountered toward public transit.

“There was definitely this feeling of, ‘It’s not safe. It's not used by the general public. A lot of homeless are on the bus,’” she said.

Miller regularly used public transit while living in cities along the East Coast and had a different experience.

“I didn't want the kids to grow up without learning what I view as a really important life skill,” she said.

It’s true that riding on public transit is far from the norm for many Austinites. Less than 3% of people in the city regularly use it to get to work, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Navigating the bus system — looking up schedules, buying fare passes, knowing when to request your stop — can be intimidating. But if people can build those habits young, Miller said, it can make a difference.

“As an adult, we automatically have a certain level of baggage that we carry with us about not wanting to look like we don't know how to do something. And public transit is one of those things,” she said. “Kids aren't afraid of things like that. … They come onto the bus and they're just excited.”

Jude, age 6, looks out the window of a CapMetro bus passing by a building.
Manoo Sirivelu
KUT News
Jude looks out the window of the bus. ATX Kids Club founder Tammy Miller says riding CapMetro is often kids' favorite part of camp.

Building resiliency through public transit

ATX Kids Club’s signature summer program is a week of field trips to different places around the city, organized by theme. Nature and Environment week, for example, includes trips to the Zilker Botanical Garden, the Austin Nature & Science Center and the Texas Science & Natural History Museum. Campers travel in groups of up to eight kids and one adult field trip leader. Last year, just over 400 kids attended the summer program.

CapMetro is a financial sponsor of the camp and provides the adult counselors with bus passes (kids under 18 already ride for free). But even with the partnership, campers ride the bus like any other Austinite. That means sometimes dealing with buses that come too early or too late, or skip their stop completely. It also means standing in the heat.

A large bus decorated with a large ad for ATX Kids Club, showcasing a picture of kids and the words, "Join Our Adventure!"
Courtesy of CapMetro
CapMetro recently featured ATX Kids Club on a bus as part of CapMetro Cares, one of the organization's community engagement programs.

“It's all about paying attention, hydration, finding shade when you can,” Miller said. “It doesn't mean it's not going to be hot. It just means that we are going to be able to make our way through.”

Overcoming those hurdles is part of the experience, she said. Field trip leaders are prepped with different strategies for keeping kids engaged when there’s a long wait at the bus stop. Kids read, write in their camp journals or eat a snack.

"They're walking the streets and learning how to deal with that heat. But then they're also becoming more confident. They're building their sense of independence," Miller said. "You can't really teach those things as much as you can just provide opportunities for them to develop those skills.”

A day at bus camp

What exactly do kids like about the bus? I joined a group of elementary school campers to find out for myself.

We started the day at the playground in Pease Park, where parents dropped their kids off with field trip leaders.

Tyler Grosvenor, a senior at Texas Tech University who started working for ATX Kids Club this summer, was one of those field trip leaders. He said campers like pulling the cord to request their stop and tracing their route on the maps available at the front of the bus. And because they take the same routes throughout the summer, bus drivers start to recognize them.

“I think [the bus drivers] really, really, truly do love the kids. They're always greeting them,” he said. “And whenever we leave the bus, we always say thank you, and they always say thank you back.”

Campers cut through Pease Park on their way to the bus stop.
Manoo Sirivelu
KUT News
Grosvenor has the campers form a line while walking through Pease Park to the bus stop.

All that practice on bus etiquette isn’t just for the kids. Grosvenor, who’s from the Houston suburbs, didn’t take public transit growing up. Before camp, he said, he believed in stereotypes about transit being dirty and “scary” — but his experience with Austin’s bus system has been the opposite so far.

“Being able to immerse myself on that bus and be with the different kids throughout this camp has really opened my eyes to being willing to get on public transportation,” he said.

After some time on the playground and a snack break, the campers — equipped with hats, water bottles, backpacks and lunch boxes — began their trek to the bus. The destination: Waterloo Park for group music lessons.

First, we followed a small, woodsy trail out of Pease Park. We brushed away low-hanging tree branches and hopped over boulders rising out of the stream.

Then we broke from the trail to get to the bus stop. Campers fought over, and piled onto, the bench beside the road.

Campers wait for the the bus while sitting on a bench and the sidewalk.
Manoo Sirivelu
KUT News
Carl (front), age 7, and the other kids wait at the bus stop. Though CapMetro and ATX Kids Club have a partnership, campers ride the bus like any other Austinite.

Carl, 7, opted instead for a seat on the sidewalk. He said it was his third time taking the public bus, and so far, he’s a fan.

“It helps me be calm when I'm sitting and it has fresh air, so I like it,” he said.

Our bus arrived 5 minutes later, with only a few other riders inside. As we took off and crossed through downtown, campers talked, read and gazed out the windows.

“I see a lot of buildings and people and really cool stuff that I can do when I grow up,” Carl said. “I could live in really high buildings up there.”

He said he also liked the design of the bus.

“They make it stable, so if lightning strikes it, it won't break as much,” he said.

Campers and field trip leaders board the bus from the sidewalk.
Manoo Sirivelu
KUT News
Less than 3% of Austinites regularly use public transit to get to work, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

We left the bus (with a smattering of thank you’s) and commenced the final leg of the trip — zigzagging through Austin’s streets to Waterloo Park.

The music lessons were technically the first “planned” activity of the day. But it felt like a lot had already happened.

Musician Sahara Smith teaches Liam, Carl, Jude and Eve how to play a drum for a music lesson at Waterloo Park during the ATX Kids Club Summer Camp.
Manoo Sirivelu
KUT News
Local musician Sahara Smith teaches Liam, Carl, Jude and Eve (from left to right) how to play the drums at Waterloo Park.

We wandered through the woods. We hopped over boulders. We rode a huge, lightning-proof machine.

“It would be my hope that as [the kids are] traveling — they're walking from the bus stop to the destination or from the destination to their next bus stop — all of that is such an opportunity to learn something, see something, create something, talk about something,” Miller said. “That is the adventure, you know?”

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Chelsey Zhu is the digital producer at KUT. Got a tip? You can email her at
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