Creative After-School Programs

Get involved and learn about new programs that help ensure children spend their after-school hours in new and meaningful ways.

When school bells ring across the country, signaling the end of another day, 14 million children in kindergarten through 12th grade head to places unsupervised by adults -- empty homes, friends' houses, shopping malls, backyards, and more. It can be an unproductive and uninspiring time for kids. And at its worst, kids left to their own devices can get into trouble; the hours with the highest crime rates involving teens are between 3 and 6 p.m., according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice.

Nationwide, after-school programs are working to meet the growing needs of parents and children to fill this gap. But a recent study by the Afterschool Alliance reports the supply of programs in the United States still isn't able to meet the needs of millions of children and their working parents.

That's why 4-H launched 4-H Afterschool (www.4hafterschool.org), a volunteer-driven program designed to help kids find something fun, constructive, and safe to do in the hours after school.

"We're trying to help potential volunteers realize they can really make an impact on young people," says program coordinator Ron Drum.

When most people think of 4-H, they usually picture kids learning to care for farm animals in rural areas of Iowa or Kansas. In fact, some of the largest 4-H Afterschool programs are in the city. After-school 4-H clubs or programs have been established in more than 3,000 counties in the United States. These clubs offer kids a variety of activities: scavenger hunts, construction projects, character- and relationship-building programs, and classes that cover everything from expressive art to science and technology.

Reports by the Harvard Family Research Project and others have determined that such programs can help improve behavior problems, social and interpersonal skills, and academic performance.

Having Fun with Comics

4-H Afterschool is just one of a number of program options parents can choose. Other initiatives focus more on creative or expressive outlets. For instance, Michael Bitz, an educator at Columbia University in New York City, created the The Comic Book Project, a literacy event sponsored by Oregon-based publisher Dark Horse Comics.

Bitz used the traditional comic book format to connect the kids' artistic skills with literacy. The first project encouraged children to create their own comic books. Not only did the project foster children's imaginations, the materials were packed with vocabulary-building exercises, language arts tools, and, most of all, positive messages. Like 4-H Afterschool, The Comic Book Project focuses on academic advancement, character building, and community building. Anyone interested can order materials to start this program from the group's Web site, www.comicbookproject.org, which also exhibits students' work.

While some after-school programs offer kids a range of alternatives to keep mind and body engaged, other programs have more specialized aims, such as cultivating interest in specific businesses or fields of study. For example, Business Week, a summer intern program in Colorado, works to get children interested in business and leadership. It's the latest program offered by Junior Achievement (www.ja.org), an organization that was founded in 1919 as a group of small after-school clubs.

Martha Montoya, a high school senior whose family immigrated to the United States from Mexico two years ago, was clearly inspired by the program. Coming from a lower-middle-class family and having worked in her father's fields in Mexico, Martha didn't expect to rise above her past. After meeting her Business Week mentor, Margaret Kelly, president of the RE/MAX real estate company, Martha was inspired to work toward a college degree. "She gave me my first lesson in how to better oneself," says Martha.

If there is no after-school program available in your area, help start one yourself, following these tips from the Afterschool Alliance.

Contact other parents, guardians, or neighbors. If you're worried about what your child does after school, there are probably others who feel the same way. Seek out those people, attend PTA meetings, or ask a teacher if he or she knows of parents who have voiced similar concerns.

Host a meeting. Arrange a meeting with these parents and brainstorm. Find out how other communities started their after-school programs. Talk to community organizations such as the YMCA, local libraries, or parks and recreation departments about donating time, money, or ideas. Meet with teachers to decide what types of activities should be offered in an after-school program.

Find funding. Ask your employer about donating goods or services to the program. For instance, 4-H and its after-school programs get donations from the Kellogg Foundation and the Reader's Digest Fund. In addition to helping fund 4-H programs, the JCPenney Afterschool Fund has helped support many other programs associated with the Afterschool Alliance (www.afterschoolalliance.org).

Small businesses and individuals can also help fund and run after-school programs. Business owner Anna Land and paralegal Suzanne Kiefer founded Heart House (www.hearthouse.org), a free after-school program for low-income children, with two locations in Dallas and Austin, Texas. Their program includes tutoring and homework assistance, art enrichment, health and urban safety, computer literacy, nutrition, and structured activities based on monthly themes.

"One month it was careers, one month it was the great outdoors, and one month it was family," says Terry Pridmore, site director of the location in Dallas. Supported entirely by private funds, Heart House relies heavily on help from community residents, and college and high school student volunteers.

While donations may be the bread of after-school programs, volunteers are definitely the butter. It's not necessary to be an adult either. In fact, some of the best volunteers are kids willing to help other kids. Two young people who heeded the call for volunteers in Michigan are 18-year-old Heidi Ziegenmeyer and her 16-year-old sister, Heather.

After their mom saw a newspaper article about a need for volunteers, the girls went to the local elementary school's 4-H Afterschool program and began helping children with reading.

"There was this kid named Jacob who had trouble with certain words," recalls Heidi. "And when he would get a word right, he'd get this big smile on his face. I felt like I was really helping him."

Her younger sister, Heather, agrees that volunteering is personally rewarding, and also an opportunity to give something back. "When I was in school we had a buddy program, where older kids paired up with younger kids. It really helped me a lot. By volunteering, I've gotten to do the same thing for others."

-- Additional reporting by Kelly Kunkel

Originally published in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, April 2005.

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