To most kids, the word "summer" may as well be synonymous with fun.
Of course, this is largely because school is out.
For a portion of children, however, summer can be difficult. And this is also largely because school is out.
In the case of kids who rely on free and reduced breakfast and lunch programs provided through schools as a key source of nutrition, summer breaks can make their access to hot and balanced meals less frequent.
In addition, for kids who live in rural communities like Arizona City, summer can pose another challenge: There's just not much to do.
Being unincorporated means that Arizona City's summer programing is sparse, with most summer activities happening in neighboring communities like Casa Grande.
Getting to those cities isn't always an option, said Arizona City Fire District Chief Jeff Heaton, especially for children who might spend their days in the care of an elderly grandparent.
With a mission of servicing the community throughout the unincorporated area, the Arizona City Fire District decided to put together a reoccurring program that would not only give area kids something to do throughout the summer but would also help fill the gap for students who depend on school nutritional programs during the academic year.
Started in 2016, the fire district's Summer Water and Safety Days runs on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The program aims to teach attendees about fire prevention, emergency safety procedures, gang awareness and drug prevention. It offers peer mentoring as well.
Kids walk away from the district's Summer Water Days with educational materials that reinforce what they've learned throughout the eight-week program, including everything from refrigerator magnets designed to make finding important contact numbers easy to information on home exit drills, intended to engage both kids and their parents.
"We know (the program) is providing a better fire-safe environment for kids and really teaching it to them," said Heaton.
The program is meant to be educational. It's also meant to be fun. The fire district puts together swimming pools, water activities, bouncy houses, obstacle courses and slides as part of the summer-long program to help keep area kids cool and entertained.
"The idea is that we wear them out, we (help them) dissipate the heat and then they'll go home and relax in the house at night when we're all done," said Heaton.
The educational portion of the event runs from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., with the afternoon activities wrapping up by 2 p.m. Fire district employees begin setting up for the day's summer fun as early as 6 a.m.
Summer Water Days is completely free and includes a free lunch served during the day. Costing about $18,000 annually to organize and operate, the program is funded through donations received by the Arizona City Fire District Association as well as through fundraisers put on by the association throughout the year such as car washes, spaghetti dinners, breakfasts and similar events.
Summer Water Days is now in its sixth year, and attendance reaches an average of about 150 kids per day. Each day, attendees are also given a free lunch, often comprised of hot dogs, chips, a drink, fruit, a snack and a popsicle.
As part of the program, the fire district will also put on additional activities throughout the summer including an annual movie night hosted at the fire house, complete with popcorn and lemonade.
Participation is open to all Pinal County children between the ages of 5 and 15. The program is also developed to be flexible, with kids welcome to attend as little as half an hour of one session or each session for the full two and a half hours.
"You can come one time or you can come to all of them," said Heaton.
Heaton estimates that about 80% of the children who come to water days never miss a session, barring family vacations or other summer activities.
"It's a free opportunity to cool off in the summer, get education, a craft activity and a free lunch," he said.
There is a perk to attending multiple sessions too. Kids who attend at least 10 sessions get a free T-shirt.
"They get a little card like you would at Starbucks, we hold the card, the kids get to stamp it," explained Heaton. "So it kind of gives them some engagement (and) helps them get ready for school."
But interestingly, said Heaton, it's not the free T-shirt, the obstacle courses or the water activities that tend to stick out most in the minds of many of the kids who attend at the end of the 8- to 12-week program.
It's not even the craft activities, the educational components or the opportunity to spend time with friends.
Over the years, upon surveying children at the end of the program, Heaton said that what he's found they highlight as the best part is the free lunch.
"I've (talked to) different demographics of children and different ages of children and what we've found is that most of them have either had an incident in the home where somebody put the popcorn in for 20 minutes instead of two minutes or had a problem on the stove (so) they can't use the stove when mom and dad leave or grandma and grandpa aren't there," he said. "So to come in and get a hot dog or a slice of pizza versus a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is really where they focus on. And they enjoy the fact that they know they're going to eat for the program."
"It always amazes me," he continued. "Because I always think it would be the water slides or the friends or the activities and it always comes back to the food."
During the times when summer school runs, Heaton noted that the fire district will also partner with area school districts to ensure that kids who attend Summer Water Days and rely on school meals as a key source of nutrition receive a breakfast, a lunch and another breakfast for the next day.
Though organized and put on by the fire district, the water days are also the result of partnerships with other agencies across the county, from the Arizona City Community Library to the Pinal County Sheriff's Office.
"We see this as an opportunity to see our population prior to them dialing 911," said Heaton. "We always say we're in kind of the 'bad-day-business' because that's what we do — you don't call the fire department when you're having a great day... If it's an emergency, it's typically the worst day of your life when you're calling us. So this gave us a chance for the kids in our community and the parents to see us under a better light and (allowed us) to really provide that community service piece that wasn't being met by any other organization."
For the fire district, filling that need for the community is an important part of the organization's role. Though the district is currently working to meet the need through community programming like Summer Water Days, the district has a much bigger goal in mind for the future.
Down the line, the fire district is hoping to raise enough funding to purchase an adjacent lot behind the fire house with the intention to construct a community pool. The overall vision, said Heaton, is that the fire district's staff would be on a rotating schedule to oversee the pool and that the facility would serve as an even better venue for the water days program.
Summer water days has also had a far-reaching effect beyond the boundaries of Arizona City, he noted.
"We're proud that since we've done it, the city of Casa Grande's Fire (Department) is now doing one water day, the city of Eloy is doing one water day, Florence Fire is now doing one water day and so is the city of Coolidge," he said.
Heaton noted that serving an unincorporated area has enabled the fire district to organize and develop Summer Water Days on a scope that is difficult for other municipal fire departments to replicate. The lack of a robust municipal government in the area sometimes means more flexibility for the district when it comes to planning the program, as they don't have to rely on other municipal departments to coordinate. However, this can be a drawback at times, since the responsibility for putting the event together rests predominantly on the shoulders of the district as well.
In addition, Heaton noted that many incorporated communities also have parks and recreation departments that provide varied and comprehensive summer programing — something that Arizona City doesn't have.
Which is why community service has become an important component of the fire district's mission. And the summer-long program is far from the first community-oriented program the fire district has put on.
Since 1963, Arizona City Fire has also run a Fourth of July fireworks show for area residents — typically held on July 3 as the fire district will also assist the city of Casa Grande with its fireworks display on July 4.
Arizona City's fireworks show is put on by the fire district at no cost to area residents. Instead, the district and its association raise money to purchase the fireworks through fundraisers.
"We see ourselves as a community service organization and we want to service the needs of the community," Heaton said.
Filling that role can, and frequently does, go beyond programs designed for kids or Independence Day celebrations. In an effort to fill the need for more community activities in the area, the fire district also runs an arts and crafts program for area seniors in partnership with ArtMobile's Lisa Swanson.
Craft programs Swanson has spearheaded with the group include creating craft projects for kids participating in water days. This year, the group has made numbers out of pottery for water days participants to paint in bright colors. The idea is that kids will take the numbers home and, with the help of their parents, hang them up on the front of their house in an effort to help the fire district locate homes faster when they are responding to calls for service.
With the help of Swanson, the fire district also runs another program designed to bring a smile to elderly Arizona City residents' faces and ensure that they have access to the help they need, even if it's just something small like changing out air-conditioning filters.
"We'll do smoke alarms, air filters — and I wish everyone knew that," said Shirley Sutherland, administrative assistant.
Swanson routinely puts together bags filled with crafts and art supplies as well as other goodies throughout the year. The bags are usually themed around holidays — including occasions like Valentine's Day and Memorial Day.
The fire district will regularly deliver the bags to area seniors before or on each holiday. It's an opportunity for the district to check in with more vulnerable members of the community and also engage with the people they serve.
Building these types of programs for Arizona City, however, is an effort that has often required the fire district to develop, and rely on, community partnerships with other agencies around the county.
From the Pinal County County Attorney's Office to area businesses, the fire district has teamed up with plenty of area organizations to help facilitate Summer Water Days and other activities.
Heaton said that he sees the partnerships with area businesses as mutually beneficial.
"We are truly a community service organization that's filling a lot of those roles throughout the summer for the residents, not only for Arizona City, but the surrounding areas as well," he said.
The program is also always looking for volunteers said Sutherland, and the fire district is always happy to talk with potential volunteers about what works within their schedule and the parameters of what they can do.