YMCA gives kids ‘a dose of normal’

Dedication to character building and enrichment are key elements of the afterschool program.

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Now more than ever, young Island kids need a safe and secure space apart from their own home where they can play and engage with their peers. And during a time when isolation and disconnection are the norm, playing outdoors on a jungle gym with friends, or reading books aloud together, can benefit kids in many ways.

The YMCA of Martha’s Vineyard is continuing its commitment to Island youth by offering an afterschool program that provides students with a nurturing and fun environment. The afterschool program at the YMCA began at the beginning of October last year, and although they still have a relatively low enrollment, afterschool program and summer camp director Tara Dinkel said, the benefit for kids and families is significant.

“When we ran summer camp back in July, our main priority was to serve those working families who really couldn’t do the work from home,” Dinkel said. “Most of those families we have had in the program for several years, and that kind of same group trickled into the afterschool programs, so we are really still supporting those families.”

The YMCA takes a calculated approach to arranging kids in classrooms for their afterschool program, similar to how Island schools place students in cohorts.

Dinkel said 16 kids are currently enrolled in the program, and their procedure is to combine kindergarten and first grade in one classroom, and second through fourth grade in another.

Kindergarten and first grade students are situated in the child-watch classroom directly to the left of the main entrance, and the afterschool program across the hall houses the second through fourth graders.

The program includes students from Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, West Tisbury, and Tisbury schools, and one child from the Charter School.

According to Dinkel, the YMCA is licensed by the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care to accommodate up to 23 kids in each learning space.

Initially, parents had to pick up their kids from school and drop them off at the YMCA, but bus service is now being provided to families in the program.

When kids arrive on the buses or are dropped off by family members, they must submit a daily attestation form that includes health screening questions to determine exposure or symptoms. This is done virtually through Microsoft Forms.

Dinkel or another staff person greets students and makes sure they use hand sanitizer, then they hang up their belongings in their designated classroom and each get a prepackaged snack (after they wash their hands).

The staff compiles a monthly calendar for the kids, where each month has a particular theme that kids learn about and engage with.

“Right now the theme is outer space, so we would do activities related to that, and get books from the Oak Bluffs library,” Dinkel said. She added that the kids get to go in the pool for recreational swimming twice a week, and noted that the YMCA has a stringent protocol for doing this safely.

Because young students have a fully remote day as part of their hybrid school schedule on Friday, the YMCA also provides a full-day support option from 8:30 am to 4 pm, where kids go in and receive support with their devices to go through their everyday curriculum. “It’s basically the same protocol as for afterschool. They bring their own IPads and laptops, and a set of headphones, and we have them set up in the classroom,” Dinkel said.

Each student gets a printed copy of their daily schedule, with all the required assignments and activities laid out.

Staff members help students sign into their Zoom classrooms, and assist with any other technical issues, and help them stay on task as they move through their required coursework.

Kelly Neadow, senior program director for youth and staff development, said each one of the student cohorts has its own designated indoor space, its own outdoor space, and its own bathroom. Each room has direct access from the outside, so parents picking up their kids don’t have to come into the facility, and kids don’t have to enter the main facility unless they are going into the pool for swimming time. “We have been able to keep the groups very separate from the general public,” Neadow said.

Even though the program is running differently, the YMCA hasn’t altered any of the central pillars that make it such an essential community institution.

Apart from the masks and the additional health measures required during the pandemic, Neadow said, once kids are sitting in their seats painting or reading books, she feels like things run similarly to how they have in the past. “So I feel like in some ways, coming to the Y for afterschool is maybe the one normal thing kids get to do,” Neadow said.

She added that the kids in the program have adjusted well to the new day-to-day routines, and are enjoying being able to see their friends. “We have been incredibly impressed by those in our programs; they are just such troopers,” Neadow said.

An emphasis on the YMCA programs has always been character building, and Neadow said this is specifically important when it comes to social and emotional learning.

Giving kids an engaging and rich experience that allows them to exercise some of their other faculties that might not be as active during the conventional school day, Neadow said, is a primary element of the program.

“That is how we have always felt that we could show up for our community and our families, and do the best for our kids,” Neadow said. “That has not changed in any capacity. We are trying to bring a dose of normal into kids’ lives, and give them more adults in their lives that they can trust and depend on — and you know, sometimes a little bit can go a long way.”