The Journal Gazette
Sunday, January 16, 2022 1:00 am

'More than a place to go'

The best afterschool options offer children 'a place to grow'

Debby Stellwagen

A Fort Wayne mother struggles to provide food for her eight kids and worries about them after school. Another is raising six children on her own and lives with the stress of finding care for them while she works. Two parents are among the working poor and can pay their basic bills but have no real assets. They barely get by and have no money for afterschool care.

They are not alone. In fact, nearly 18% of Fort Wayne residents, or almost one in five, live in poverty. In Allen County, when the working poor are considered, that figure jumps to more than one in three. On the southeast side of Fort Wayne, in ZIP code 46803, not more than a few minutes from many readers' homes, it is even more stark: Nearly 50% of those residents live in poverty, making it among the poorest ZIP codes in the state.

Many families at some point need afterschool care, but one in three families must find it with virtually no financial resources and limited family support options. According to the Afterschool Alliance, one in five children across America remain alone and unsupervised after school. This is not acceptable here or anywhere.

Compounding the issue is the potential for crime and bad behavior after school. According to a 2019 report by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a national law enforcement organization, afterschool hours (2 p.m. to 6 p.m.) are the highest-crime hours for school-aged children.

Left alone and unguided, kids can be placed in unsafe situations, led down dangerous paths and make poor choices.

Such is the world of afterschool care that, despite those who serve this need, it is still not met. More locations convenient to those in need, additional low- or no-cost providers, and caring and loving adults to keep kids safe and moving toward better futures are part of the solution.

It is not sufficient, however, to provide children with a place to go after school. They need a place to grow as well.

Afterschool care solutions should also include educational components, allow for development of healthy lifestyle habits, and create a supportive and safe environment. Ratios of adults to children should be kept low.

Afterschool care is not a warehouse full of kids but a nurturing environment that feeds, teaches, guides and develops children to become responsible and caring adults. The Boys & Girls Club model is one of many.

In our clubs, families pay an annual fee of $15 per child, and each child is provided a healthy meal and snack, and through strategic collaborations and partnerships, they receive quality afterschool care that is convenient, affordable and meaningful and is focused on academic success, good character, and leadership and healthy lifestyles.

As we look to improve the scope and quality of afterschool care, it is important that we look for solutions that are affordable and convenient, and move beyond watching children to teaching them.

Caring for children after school takes many forms, and it is important that organizations provide a safe haven as well as caring for the entire well-being of the child. It is not an easy road for any of us, and it is definitely not a road that can be traveled alone. We must continually evaluate ways to do more for the children and families in our community.

Children need more than a place to go; they need a place to grow.

In the end, our Boys & Girls Club mission, which is focused on children after school, continues “helping those who need us most to reach their full potential.” It is a positive goal for everyone seeking to improve afterschool care.

If we work together, we can create a meaningful and life-changing miracle for these children and families who work so hard and need us so much.

Debby Stellwagen is vice president of resource development and marketing for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Northeast Indiana.

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