For the past four years, the Andover YMCA has given hundreds of local kids a place to hang out and get help with homework after school.
“It’s nice to have a safe place to hang out after school with friends,” said Emma LukkaSon, a seventh-grade student at Oak View Middle School.
When Jessica Krueger was hired as the Andover YMCA’s youth development coordinator four years ago, she noticed that a lot of kids who were hanging out by a skateboard ramp in the parking lot would occasionally come inside, but really had nowhere to go.
Krueger worked with another YMCA staff member and eventually Youth First Community of Promise to set up a foosball table, an XBox and brought out some board games to give the kids something else to do. As the program grew and more funding became available, more part-time staff were brought on board to help the students with homework.
What started four years ago as a group of 10 regulars quickly expanded to over 100 kids with an average of 20 rotating through each weekday, according to Krueger.
There are now about 60 kids a day and probably over 500 in a year, Krueger said.
The program runs from 3-5 p.m. every school day and draws in kids ages 10 to 15.
“I wish I had something like this when I was in middle school,” said Daryl Thibideaux, one of five part-time staff members who supervise the kids. “It’s a good opportunity for them to be constructive rather than going home and watching TV or finding a way to get into trouble.”
Thibideaux feels great when a student proudly shows him how their grades have improved, he said.
He is also willing to listen when students need to talk about something good or bad going on in their lives, according to Thibideaux.
One of his favorite memories is hearing about a first deer hunting trip from a girl and her father, Thibideaux said.
Friends and siblings can be credited with spreading the word about the program, making more people aware that they have somewhere to go after school when they cannot make it home and they have no extra curricular activities.
The YMCA has never handed out flyers or made an active effort to promote the program with teachers and staff at Andover Elementary School, Andover Middle School or Andover High School. The number of students attending has skyrocketed solely through word of mouth, according to Krueger.
“They like the consistency,” Krueger said. “They know we’ll be here and that this is a safe place to be.”
Krueger’s most recent statistics show that 44 percent of students who regularly come to this after-school program come from single parent homes. About one-quarter of them are on the Anoka-Hennepin School District’s free or reduced lunch program. Almost 20 percent are taking English as a Second Language classes.
Krueger said anybody can check out this program. She tracks these statistics to get a better understanding of the students they are serving to make the program as useful as possible.
Other big helpers have been local businesses such as $5 Pizza, Sweet Toppings and Thrive for Wellness that have occasionally donated food for the kids. The addition of Subway to the community center has been a welcome one because of its healthy menu options, Krueger said.
A youth center to call their own
A city of Andover contribution, which also includes them opening up meeting rooms and one of the basketball courts, helps offset the costs, according to Krueger.
Where the future of the program goes from here will partially be determined by the Andover City Council, which has been discussing community center expansion. One of several possibilities noted in the city’s 2014-2018 capital improvement plan is a youth center.
The after-school program is spread throughout the facility. Tables in a large meeting room next to the YMCA’s check-in desk are moved around to make space for a ping pong table and so kids working on different homework assignments or playing board games can have their own area.
Other students work on homework in smaller meeting rooms, including one that overlooks the pool. The city leaves a section of the basketball court reserved for the kids and the YMCA lets a group of about 20 use an upstairs studio for break dancing every Wednesday.
Krueger can see the benefit of the kids having a dedicated space to call their own. One student is a very talented artist and she loves the idea of a spray painted mural on the walls, but this cannot happen in a meeting space used by so many other community groups.
Although she thinks the current set-up has been working and that it is nice for the kids to see the whole YMCA and for others to see that the YMCA is more than a place to work out, Krueger said rooms dedicated to a youth center would be a positive for the kids.
Jessica Butler, a seventh-grade student, likes that there are quiet places to work on her homework, but she would like to see more spare textbooks in case she leaves hers in her school locker or at home.
A couple of students said it would be nice to have more laptops on which to work.
Krueger said the computer situation is much better than it used to be. Instead of just bringing her personal computer in, the after-school program now has access to 20 Google Nexus tablets as part of Anoka County’s Library on the Go pilot program.
Each kid also received a library card so they can check out books from a vending machine or use the tablets to download e-books from a 3M Discovery Station.
“It’s the best place for a child,” said Jacqueline Pfautz, a seventh-grade student. “I get a lot of help on homework and they’re really nice.”
Eric Hagen is at firstname.lastname@example.org