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It takes a club: Area boys and girls clubs find new niche amid COVID
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It takes a club: Area boys and girls clubs find new niche amid COVID

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Boys & Girls Clubs of America, across the nation, set up after-school programs because there is a need. Kids need a place to go and parents need to feel secure about where their children are being cared for.

Society also benefits because the kids can learn some skills, socialize with their peers … and have fun.

And the clubs kind of have the security of a never-ending clientele. There always will be school, right? Thus there always will be kids — and families — seeking after-school programs.

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But what happens if there isn’t any school? What happens if in about a 48-hour period, such as last March, COVID-19 turns the world so upside down that education becomes a Zoom meeting? What do you do then?

You become all-day day-care centers for essential workers. You tear up the blueprint. You do it essentially in a long weekend. And you keep adapting.

“I was contacted by the Edward C. Allworth Veteran’s Home and Samaritan Health Services who were desperate after the governor shut everything down," said Kris Latimer, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Greater Santiam, which has branches in Lebanon and Sweet Home. "How do you take care of hundreds of residents/patients when your staff have nowhere for their children to go? It took us one week to make a plan and open the doors.”

The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Greater Santiam opened a 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. program March 23 in Lebanon and by mid-April the Sweet Home branch also began offering the service. The club celebrated its one-year anniversary of the new service last Tuesday.

Helen Higgins, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Corvallis, felt the same sort of tug.

“March 12th was the last day our clubhouse was open,” she said. “We were providing a non-school day program when the closures hit, so we finished the day and then closed Monday.”

And then got busy. Higgins worked with her board on a plan to open the club to emergency and essential worker childcare services.

“We moved ahead even in spite of much uncertainty around risk, liability and cost,” she said. “We did not have any obvious funding to run this program, but I knew we’d find a way! I personally felt strongly that we should support our essential workforce in the way we could, which was providing childcare, at least for first- through sixth-graders.”

Higgins and her crew started with five kids. But it was a start … and once you start, as a wise person once said, the rest is inevitable. You keep moving. You follow the yellow brick road. You get it done. They are now averaging about 95 kids per day.

Here’s a closer look, from the perspective of a year’s experimentation amid the worst global pandemic in a century, at how the clubs in Corvallis, Lebanon and Sweet Home got it done.

Corvallis

What does a Boys & Girls Club look like from an outsider’s perspective. It’s chaos. Like a swarm of bees flying to and fro, intermingling, interacting, traveling from one side of the club to the other.

No more.

“It was a total shift,” said Branden Todd, clubhouse director. “We had to get into the COVID state of mind. We had to get past all of the training and come up with solid processes for staff to follow and for the kids to follow. We turned our game room into a child care room.” 

Movement around the club still was OK. But the kids would be moving in groups. You stayed with your group. You moved with your group. You ate with your group.

The groups were given names and corresponding colors. Lines of colored tape were added to the floor to keep the groups in their lanes. Icons on the drinking fountains and the restrooms showed which groups were eligible for which fixtures.

“Layers of safety,” Todd put it.

The club never had offered three meals a day before. The Corvallis School District provided the food, but the club had to figure out how to distribute it safely. The previous system, which featured all of the kids lined up together in front of a counter below a three-quarters sized overhead garage door … wasn’t going to work.

Club officials used the same system as they did for the groups. Rolling carts that the club used for supplies were brought in.

“We’re kind of our own Uber eats,” Todd said. “We had to stagger all of the meal times. But it’s working. It’s kind of like directing an orchestra.”

And no one has gotten COVID.

“The club operated without any cases of COVID up until March 5th of this year,” Higgins said. “We had a child that came to the program that tested positive for COVID, and thankfully, our protocols held! So no staff or youth were infected. Our Benton County Health Department contact said she was pretty amazed that we’d gone as long as we did without any COVID coming into the building. You can operate in a safe way.”

“And still be able to stay open and serve the community,” said Amanda Garcia, who oversees quality and safety.

Jessica Dover has three sons in the day-care program, 10-year-old twins and an 8-year-old.

“They are doing an amazing job of reacting to regulations so my kids don’t feel scared by it,” Dover said. “Yet they still are able to connect with the kids. They saw the things that were needed in the community, and they’re not the type of people who say ‘sorry, can’t.’ They are going to find a way.”

One of the key components of the Corvallis after-school program was its link to three elementary schools — Lincoln, Garfield and Wildcat. All three are Title I schools, meaning more of their students and families receive federal assistance of some sort.

Enter LEC, or the Learning Enrichment Center, whose Wildcat coordinator is Camryn Kimberly. How was the club going to continue to serve this group?

“We had to think of a way,” Kimberly said, while holding up an oversized Ziploc bag full of items meant to hold the attention of a first- through sixth-grader for a week.

The activity bags go out every Friday, with Uber club staffers doing the driving. And they wind up in homes such as that of Kerry Richey.

Richey is the grandmother of a Wildcat kindergartner and a sixth-grader. The children’s parents are both teachers and have their own classrooms to consider.

Enter the activity bag!

“I’m just amazed at what we are given,” Richey said. “It’s a treasure trove. We look for it every week.”

The club recently added a cooking component to the bags and includes recipes and ingredients. Richey says the kids really enjoy working with her on the cooking projects.

In September of 2018 the club opened the Johnson Teen Center. It is named for the late Ken Johnson and his wife, Dot. Ken Johnson was a dentist who helped set up a free clinic at the club. The addition of the $6 million facility allowed the club to expand its offerings for teens and add mental health services.

The focus these days is only slightly different. Instead of high school kids the center also is accommodating seventh- and eighth-graders. That’s because state child-care regulations limit the rest of the club to those in sixth grade and younger. You adapt.

Casey Higgins, who manages the teen center, said that he is mainly seeing kids in seventh through 10th grade. The center still offers job skills programming and the club still has a 100% high school graduation rate among teens who have gone through the program.

“We’re building our own future work force,” Helen Higgins said. “If a high school teen comes through this program they are going to get a job.”

Higgins noted that she charges $100 per week for the day-care program, although it started as a free service for the first three months. Providing the service costs her operation $45 per day per child.

“That’s why we spend a lot of time writing grants and fund-raising,” she said.

“There were so many unknowns. We weren’t even sure how to pay for it. But the miracle always happens here … and the money always show up.”

Corvallis has a one-year COVID “celebration” planned for Wednesday.

Lebanon, Sweet Home

Executive director Latimer had her club’s day-care operation running in Lebanon on March 23.

“This organization was built by the community for the community and is supported by the same so when we were asked to serve (by the Vets Home and Samaritan) we put our heads together to figure it out,” she said. “Honestly we were overjoyed to be asked. My managers and I were trying to figure out what our next move was.”

It was into uncharted territory.

“When we decided to open, the state hadn't issued any guidance or anything of that nature,” she said. “We read the science, consulted with healthcare professionals and put a plan in place. We immediately opened full day programs, 7 a.m to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and began serving weekend free meals for children.”

The club did not charge the essential workers. The program included school support, two meals and a snack, and enrichment activities.

“Our goal was to provide a sense of normalcy for the children in our care (and their parents) during stressful times,” Latimer said. “Many of the children's parents are healthcare workers, etc. and early on everyone was really running a little scared.”

There definitely was a learning curve, she said.

“It was a challenge this school year to get up to speed in order to support the kids who were here. Parents expected our staff to be able to facilitate online learning for all the kids in our care. That was difficult when you have as an example, two staffers with a group of 15 third-graders who all have different teachers. My staff (she calls them magic unicorns) did an amazing job and in both Lebanon and Sweet Home we have many families who choose to have their children stay at the club and we continue to support their online learning.”

Latimer said the three biggest challenges her operation face was the cost, fear factors and a lack of available workers.

“We have been short-staffed the entire time and when you're operating full-day programs that creates a real grind. I guess if I really reflect we had other obstacles, such as supplies.

“But our partners — both the Lebanon and Sweet Home school districts helped with that. Buck's Sanitation stepped up and provided hand washing stations for both buildings and our child development center, and the community stepped up in providing financial support as well.”

In addition, the Lebanon district provided seven part-time classified staffers to assist.

Latimer also said the club tries to maintain awareness of where the need is the greatest.

“The majority of the children that we've served are from among the poorest households in the community,” she said. “We use a sliding scale fee structure based on income. These families have enough on their plate without having to figure out homeschooling or virtual learning. We're hopeful that we helped (and will continue to help) them keep up with their peers academically, to have full tummies every day, and to know that we truly care about each and every one of them.”

Contact reporter James Day at jim.day@lee.net or 541-812-6116. Follow at Twitter.com/jameshday or gazettetimes.com/blogs/jim-day.

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