School Age Program is more than baby sitters
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(Editor's note: This is the third installment of a four-part series about the youth department and the programs it has to offer the youth at MacDill. Follow up in future editions of the Thunderbolt.)
Three… Two… One… RIIIIIING! Students burst out the doors after another day of mind-bending education. Their feet can hardly carry them fast enough down the sidewalk as they scramble to be first on the bus. Laughter fills the air and anticipation builds for the fun waiting at the end of a short bus ride. Roughly 120 students from Tinker Elementary chatter incessantly about what they have planned for the next few hours after school.
For one group, practice for their upcoming drama production; for another few, building a wood project; and for some, simply playing video games and hanging out with friends. One thing all of the children have in common is their destination -- the Youth Center.
The School Age Program on Florida Keys Avenue offers children up to age 12 an environment to play, learn and socialize at a nominal cost to their parents.
Elizabeth Gilbert, School Age Program coordinator, said the before and after school program isn't a duplication of school, but has completely planned programs to keep the children entertained and educated. Most activities are organized so the children can choose between projects such as art, science, wood working and drama.
Other activities are for everyone like jaunts to the bowling alley or field trips.
One project includes building sets for each play the drama program puts on. Another is the "Empty Bowls" project, which enables the children to auction off their hand-made bowls in order to raise money for local soup-kitchens and homeless shelters.
"The kids are involved in various projects here and for the community as well," said Mrs. Gilbert. "We try to show them at a young age it is important for them to be involved in something more important than themselves."
Charlie Lechter, Youth Program director for the base, said the weekly cost of the program is determined by the total family income. The lowest price for the before and after school care program is $45, while in the upper range, the cost is $95. He said the cost for the upcoming summer months' changes slightly to range from $59 to $114 weekly.
The transition to summer hours will mean extended time for the children to stay at the center Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. The themed weeks during the summer months will include topics like dinosaurs, sports and reading, as well as plenty of outdoor activities like daily trips to the base swimming pool.
From an adult's point of view, the program is successful because it keeps the children safe and occupied while parents are at work or running errands. But the true success comes bubbling out when talking to children like Jessica Johnson, a third grader at Tinker Elementary.
"I've been coming here for… seven years," said Jessica after a brief mental calculation. "I like all the cool stuff we do ; like the plays and activities. Plus all my friends are here."
Her favorite part is what's known as the Power Hour, where kids can earn points through academic achievements. Reading books, raising their grades, helping teachers and just about any other self-improvement earns points for the children. Those credits can be cashed in at a carnival at the end of the summer.
"You get fake money and you can buy all kinds of cool stuff like basketballs and board games," exclaimed Jessica, with her eyes lighting up like Xenon headlights.
Her sentiment is echoed again and again by other children who enjoy the wide variety of activities and social interaction before and after school. Each of them has a million ideas for tomorrow and how cool it would be to spend it with their friends. Luckily for them, the School Age Program has a place to make those dreams come true.