Church's school break program a blessing for kids and parents

By Beth DiCocco
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A week off from school ...

For students, it means no homework and sleeping in.

For parents, it means trying to find supervision and limit television (and other electronics) while staving off the cry, "We're bored."

And for one Crossroads District church, it's an opportunity to reach out and fill a need in its Syracuse neighborhood.

For the past eight years, Erwin First UMC in Syracuse has offered “Safe Space” week during the February school break. The program accommodates 25 kids ages 8 to 13.

"We wanted to provide something for kids who are too old for day care or baby sitters, but too young to left by themselves for a whole week," said the Rev. Karen Bellimer, associate pastor at Erwin First.

The after-school program at the nearby Westcott Community Center does not offer any programming during the school breaks, Rev. Bellimer said, and many of those parents can't afford to take time off from work.

That was exactly the dilemma facing Martha Miller, a single parent, in 2012. She didn't want to leave her son Vai and daughter Musika, then 10 and 12, alone, but they were really too old for a babysitter, and she couldn't take the week off.

Miller, administrative assistant in the Upper New York Annual Conference Benefits Office, found out about the Erwin First program from her boss, Vicki Putney.

"I didn't feel comfortable leaving them home alone for a whole week," said Miller. "I didn't have regular child care. This sounded like a great opportunity for them to be busy, not bored or playing video games."

She admits she signed them up without knowing too much more about the program.

"They loved it," Miller said. "The friends that they've met as well as activities that they did have been really valuable to them."

And it seems they are not the only ones.

"We have kids who have been coming for four or five years now; we must be doing something right," Rev. Bellimer said.

Musika and Vai talked about their week at Erwin long into the summer, so when it came time to sign up again, there was no question they wanted to do it, Miller said.

"Both years, we had really similar experiences ... them coming home very bubbly in the car, chatting about what they'd done."

The program is run by two Syracuse teachers – Kimberlee Fields, a substitute teacher in the district, and Jimmy Smith, an English teacher at Nottingham High School. They are paid specifically to work with the children. They offer some input during the planning stages, but mainly "just spend time with the kids," Rev. Bellimer said.

"They are awesome with the kids," she said.

The program includes a daily field trip – this year participants visited the zoo, the Dome (home of Syracuse University basketball), and four neighborhood pizza shops where they got to make their own pizzas.

"We try to make a field trip every day, otherwise it's a really long day for the kids and for me," Rev. Bellimer said.

They try to vary the activities – some are just fun, like the pizza; some are educational, such as a trip to the Onondaga Lake Visitors Center to learn about efforts to clean up the lake. They also do service projects. This time, children helped out at the food pantries at University UMC and Grace Episcopal Church in Syracuse.

Back by "popular demand," Bellimer said, is Smith's egg drop – where the kids try to design a container that will keep an egg from breaking when dropped from various heights.

It takes a village to raise a children's program with that much going on, and Rev. Bellimer said the program is supported by a number of United Methodist churches in Syracuse, including Christ Community, Gethsemane, Hope Korean, James Street, Rockefeller and St. Paul's.

The connectional nature of the program – with some churches helping with meals, others with transportation or other resources – is part of what appealed to Miller.

"As a parent, I'd like to see more opportunities like this," Miller said. "What's neat about this program, to me, is that so many churches pitch in – it really is a group effort to serve a population that really needs it. I think it's smarter to engage children than wonder why they're unsupervised and getting into trouble."

In fact, Rev. Bellimer offered some advice to churches that are considering a similar program: "Don't hesitate to ask for help."

"The first year, we tried to do it all in-house and it about killed all of us," she said, adding that the other churches that take part have "really enjoyed it; they do it again."

The program is free to the participating families. Funds are raised through a home supply rummage sale that takes place in August – timed to appeal to the students, particularly the international students, who are returning to Syracuse University for the fall.

The SU students can pick up items for their apartments, and the sale itself is an outreach opportunity for the church, Rev. Bellimer said.

"Along with raising funds to cover this, it's a way to get folks into the church to see what we're about," she said. "We make sure we have folks welcoming people" and letting them know the money raised is going to this specific program.

A highlight of the Safe Space week is the Thursday night dinner, when participants and their families gather at the church. The evening includes a slide show of the week's events and a jump-rope contest as well as skits and songs by the children.

"It's casual; it's a neat opportunity to see the families of the other kids," she said. "The kids start exchanging phone numbers so they can keep in touch."

"Overall, the program still blows me away with how much they get to do, the friends they get to make and how joy-filled they are coming out of it," said Miller, who added that she expects Vai will go next year, even if his sister will be too old.

Rev. Bellimer describes her role during the week as "driving the van and being generally available if anybody needs anything." A week after the program was over, she admitted she was "still recovering," but she, too, looks forward to Safe Space week.

"I get to hang out with the kids all week," she said. "Getting to know the kids, for me, that's the best part."

*Beth DiCocco is the writer/editor for the Upper New York Annual Conference.