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Home Alone After School

PHOTO: The rooftop garden at the Gary Comer Youth Center. Courtesy of Gary Comer Youth Center.
PHOTO: The rooftop garden at the Gary Comer Youth Center. Courtesy of Gary Comer Youth Center.
October 29, 2012

CHICAGO - Chicago is having a lot of problems with violent crime these days, and Illinois parents are concerned about what their children are doing after school. According to the After School Alliance, more than a half-million Illinois school kids are taking care of themselves. But not at the Gary Comer Youth Center in Chicago. Program director Ayoka Samuels says that while the children in her program are doing things like growing a garden on the rooftop, making TV shows, and playing sports, they are also learning important life skills.

"They're learning how to operate and negotiate with others; they're learning problem-solving skills; and they're learning conflict-resolution skills."

Programs like this one can cost families as little as 20 dollars a year. But sometimes, parents don't send their children because there isn't a bus and the kids may have to walk through a bad neighborhood. Samuels says she is working with the schools to find ways to get school buses to drop children off.

There also is a lack of funding to cover all those who could qualify for the programs.

In the Chicago suburb of Niles, former teacher Mark Williams now runs a program for teens in a shopping mall. Among other things, they receive homework help and mentoring. Williams says it's rewarding to provide a place where everyone belongs.

"I'm excited when I'm able to see a kid getting the help that they need, helping those kids that really desperately need something, whether it's an adult to connect with or counseling services, something like that."

The After School Alliance says peak hours for drug use and juvenile crime are between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., and that pupils participating in good programs get better grades and behave better than those who don't participate.

Kelley Talbot with the Act Now Coalition says policymakers may want to consider the alternative.

"For example, kids dropping out, kids getting involved in crime and ending up in the correctional system. The quality development programs that can help steer kids away from these sort of behaviors are much more cost-effective."

There are programs available in Chicago and downstate, but more are needed. According to the After School Alliance, more than 800,000 Illinois school-aged children could benefit from after-school programs, but only about 300,000 have access to them.

While President Obama has proposed increasing funding for such programs, some in Congress want to cut them.

More information is at tinyurl.com/9jl8ks4, gcychome.org, and tinyurl.com/8fvl7wr.


Mary Anne Meyers, Public News Service - IL