NECC After-School Program in Jeopardy
Reprinted with permission from The Millerton News, copyright The Lakeville Journal Company, LLC, 2014.
News that the North East Community Center (NECC) would not be receiving the New York state grant it had come to rely on for the past 10 years to support its after-school programming came as quite a blow, said NECC Executive Director Jenny Hansell. The loss means the community center will have to fundraise about $80,000 this year, just as "bridge funding" to get it to the point where it can apply for other grants to support the popular elementary and middle-school programs.
"It's a big loss," said Hansell, explaining the grant is awarded in five-year cycles. "The last time we got it five years ago we had 20 to 25 kids in the after-school program; we were close to 50 at the end of this year, with more anticipated. So the money that was sufficient to cover 20 to 25 kids is no longer sufficient ... so we applied for $130,000."
According to Nora Niedziekski-Eichner, executive director of the New York State Afterschool Network (NYSAN), the state's decision was a fiscal one. She said Gov. Andrew Cuomo's announcement that the Office of Children and Family Services awarded $10.9 million in grants for after-school programs statewide means that only 68 out of 281 applicants were successful in attaining grants. That equates to less than 25 percent.
"While we are very excited for the children who will have access to enrichment activities, mentoring and academic support through these newly awarded programs, we are concerned about the tens of thousands of children who will lose programs or never have one offered to them because the funding available is insufficient to address more than a small fraction of the need," said Niedzielski-Eichner. "New York needs to increase its investment in after-school so that more of the 1.1 million children who would attend a program if they could can have that opportunity."
The NECC After-School Connection, as the program is officially called, includes two sections: one is for elementary-aged students, from kindergarten through sixth grade; the second is for middle school students in seventh and eighth grade. The younger program is fundamentally after-school childcare, explained Hansell, that "provides a loving place for kids to go until 6 p.m., so families commuting to Poughkeepsie, for instance, have a place for their kids to go." The older program is for "kids who theoretically could go home on their own but want enrichment clubs or homework help or a place to go after-school to be safe and have interesting things to do," said Hansell. "Both programs do so much more than that."
• In the 2013-14 year, there were 47 children enrolled in the program: 23 boys and 24 girls, from 36 families.
• Of those enrolled, 17 were in grades K through 1; 18 were in grades 2 through 3; 12 were in grades 4 through 6.
• Nine students had special needs (issues ranging from autism to communication disorders to learning differences to emotional issues; some had no specific diagnosis).
• Slightly less than one-third of the students came from homes where English is not the primary language spoken.
• The ethnic diversity was broken up as follows: Black, 1; Hispanic, 15; Chinese, 1; Middle Eastern, 1; Caucasian, 27; mixed ethnicity, 2.
• Regarding the $10/day fee: 10 families paid no fee; 13 made special arrangements to pay less than the reduced rate; 14 paid the reduced rate (available for those eligible for free or reduced lunch at school); and 10 paid the full rate.
"In other words," noted Program Director Jan Brooks, "37 of our 47 [79 percent] students qualified for free or reduced lunch."
Brooks also tried to explain the myriad reasons why parents might make use of the after-school program.
"There are parents who work whenever they can but do not have regular employment. Some parents have employment where the number of hours ... fluctuates every week so they cannot depend on a regular paycheck. Also, several parents have seasonal employment," she wrote in a fact sheet about the program. "The vast majority are blue collar, hourly or service workers who do not have flexibility in child care — if they don't work they don't get paid."
She added that while a handful of children do have at least one parent who could meet them when they get off the school bus they attend for other reasons: homework help, social skills or for fun.
The middle-school program also has students who get involved to do community service, from the school garden, which delivers 35 boxes of fresh produce to local food pantries each week during the summer, to the Empty Bowls program, which raises money for Doctors Without Borders during the school year.
The elementary program, meanwhile, provides "a tremendous amount of physical activity, healthy snacks, enrichment and homework help," according to Hansell, which makes it especially appealing for young children. Without that, Brooks said, those young children could "miss out" on what it takes to grow healthy and strong in both mind and body. They even get to visit the United Nations and experience New York City and the wonders of different cultures living side-by-side. Beyond all of that, she said, After-School Connection offers so much more.
"Our program offers something far less tangible but far more crucial to the life of a child," Brooks stated. "Because it is not easily quantified, it is much more difficult to describe or explain. While I would not be so arrogant as to say our program is unique, what we have built into this program is special and different from most after-school care. Every so often I am reminded just how different our attitude and philosophy are from much of the rest of our culture.
"Our program is about change and growth, about helping young children learn to get what they need without whining or having a meltdown," Brooks added, "about teaching young people how to communicate in positive ways. Consistently reminding children we do not respond to whining, disrespectful demands, helps them learn not to interrupt and to ask for what they need in appropriate ways. As much as possible, if a child can express why they want to do/have something, we will figure out a way to make it happen. The child learns that an adult will listen to their ideas and will help them come to fruition.
"Our program is about helping a child succeed in life ... Our program is also about curiosity and loving to learn just for the joy of exploring new ideas," she added. "And in a world where division between groups of people are ever more apparent, in a time when conflict erupts everywhere, what can possibly be more important than helping children learn the value of each human life? That is what we are all about ... freeing children so they can become who they are meant to be."
But without funding, NECC's hands are tied. It will have to raise $80,000 by September to be able to inform both its staff and those who enroll for the after-school program what its plans are for the 2014-15 academic year. Hansell said she's loathe to cut staff, and if she has to she might rearrange some positions to avoid laying anyone off, but even that will make things more difficult. More than that, she said, she has to be able to inform parents if they'll have an after-school option for their children come the start of the school year.
"We are committed to getting the elementary-school program going — I am determined not to let those families down," Hansell said. "If we don't have enough money we'll have to draw money away from something else. I'm not sure what, we'll sweat it out hoping to break even at the end of the year. It's not like we're making profits."
NECC funds go toward food, supplies, field trips and utilities, among other items. Utilities can't be shorn, and Hansell wants to keep the food budget the same for families in need, but the other budget lines might be trimmed if necessary. Also, special guest teachers who visit the after-school program to teach everything from yoga to woodworking might be cut from the program.
In the meanwhile, the center is doing all it can to garner grant dollars from other sources — but that takes time, Hansell said. NECC is hoping the community will step up and offer financial support to keep the after-school program funded so elementary- and middle-school students have a place to go and things to do after their school day is finished.
One way in which people can help is by attending the upcoming Chef and Farmer Brunch, on Sunday, Aug. 10, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Village Green. There will also be a giving tree at the brunch. For a full story on that event and how to purchase tickets, read this week's story on Page A3.
Donations may also be sent to NECC at PO Box 35 Millerton, NY 12546 or dropped off in person at 51 South Center St., Millerton. Donations may also be given online, at www.neccmillerton.org or on Facebook. Others have contributed via Kickstarter, by starting a giving circle and donating money in one large lump sum. Fundraisers can also be organized for NECC, like carwashes, tag sales or bake sales — with the proceeds going toward the after-school program. For more information on the program, or to discuss any of the above options, call the NECC at 518-789-4259.
"This is a community that supports its children, and I feel very hopeful that people will come together and make sure that kids who need childcare and extra help will still be able to get it this year," said Hansell.