With funding from the Audacious Foundation and philanthropist Virgil Elings, the United Boys & Girls Clubs will soon reopen their after-school programming and begin a new, bold program — Community Learning Centers — whose hours will mirror the school day. Both programs seek to address the critical needs of low-income working parents who cannot afford to stay home with their kids or pay for child care. The school day program also addresses the needs of those who don’t have computers for online learning or environments conducive to learning.
Last spring, COVID required the United Boys and Girls Clubs (UBGC) to close all five of its club locations and its school-based sites, where it provided educational programming, tutoring, sports and recreation, and healthy after-school meals for 3,500 kids. It went virtual with some programming and collaborated with The Food Bank of Santa Barbara to turn its clubs into distribution centers, serving more than 110,000 people from mid-March to mid-June.
This summer, UBGC merged with the Boys and Girls Club, whose facility on East Canon Perdido Street served 1,500 kids. On July 6, that site — the Downtown Club — reopened for Summer Camp and now has 40 kids enrolled.
UBGC has long operated clubs on Santa Barbara’s Westside and in Goleta, Carpinteria, and Lompoc, and now with the merger, which has been under discussion for a long time, the Downtown Club. With this funding, all club sites, as well as the school-based site in Solvang, will open from 3-6 p.m., with priority and free attendance for kids who qualify for free and reduced-price school meals. If space allows, others can attend with a UBGC annual membership ($40). The Downtown Club’s school day and after-school programs begin on August 18. Other sites will open between then and September 1.
Jane Wood Orfalea from the Audacious Foundation said, “One of the greatest legacies of this pandemic is that children haven’t been able to be outside and playing. We need to get kids moving their bodies, taking care of their physical fitness, and being connected with their peers. The United Boys & Girls Clubs are perfectly set up to support the health and wellness needs of children in Santa Barbara County.”
To start, the Community Learning Centers will run at three Club sites — Downtown, Goleta, and Carpinteria — at a cost of $150 per student per week, with many scholarships available thanks to Virgil Elings. UBGC seeks to raise $250,000 to provide additional scholarships. In addition to the online school sessions and homework help, breakfast and lunch will be served. UBGC serves those in K through grade 12, with a heavy concentration of younger kids.
A school day program will also run at the school-based site in Solvang for kids of those employed in education at a cost of $75/week.
The Lompoc Club will open only for the after-school program, but a school day program will be offered in Lompoc at two ASES (After School Education & Safety) sites and at Maple High School for kids of those employed in education at a cost of $75/week.
COVID has presented the nonprofit with numerous challenges, including social-distancing requirements that allow the clubs to operate only at about 50 percent capacity (50 to 100 kids per club). To limit exposure, kids remain with their group of 14 for the duration of the program — both in the school day and after-school program. The daily routine includes temperature checks and questionnaire completion upon arrival, mask and social distancing throughout the day, and temperature checks again upon departure. CEO Michael Baker has never been one to shy away from a challenge. Hearing the kids laugh, even through their masks, Baker related, makes it all worth it.
An odd COVID adjustment, Baker related, has been the disallowance of sharing — which was integral to the clubs in pre-COVID times — kids sitting next to each other reading, kids playing a game of chess or game of pool. Even with these constraints, Baker added, there’s tremendous value in having a kid in a room with a trained professional who can look the kid in the eye, albeit with a mask on, and show him that the staff member cares.
While Baker is adamant about following all safety protocols mandated by the governor, he laments the difficulty of reading the emotions of a child wearing a mask, as the mouth area conveys so much. “We have gotten much better at reading eyes,” Baker said. What really keeps him up at night is concern over child abuse. While reported incidents are down, Baker believed that they are down only because schools, after-school programs, and camps, which are the main sources of reporting abuse, have been closed. At the same time, COVID has increased stress levels in low income households, which can be crowded and have economic hardships even in normal times.
Reopening the Downtown Club for summer camp clearly has been therapeutic for the kids. One mother related that her kids woke her up at 6:15 a.m. because they were so excited about returning to the club. The opening has also been therapeutic for the directors and staff, as they have missed the daily interaction with the kids.
COVID led to the cancellation of UBGC’s normally lucrative fundraisers and the closure of Camp Whittier, the latter of which typically brings in $600,000-$700,000/year in profit. CEO Michael Baker said, “I can’t thank Paul, Jane, and Virgil enough. Their gifts will allow us to open our clubs again to those that need us the most.”
To sponsor a kid at a cost of $150/week, go to unitedbg.org.
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