Elliot Park program keeps homeless kids learning after school bell rings

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March 22, 2004 // UPDATED 10:20 am - April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Rec center collaboration serves 50 kids who would otherwise go back to a shelter at 1:30 p.m.

Take a peek inside the Elliot Park Recreation Center on a weekday afternoon and you're bound to be greeted with a giant bear hug from a kindergartner.

Or, you might be lured into a game of three-step tag wherein the "it" player makes three giant paces and then tries to pelt you with a ball.

The recreation center is teeming with activities these days because of a new afterschool program for kindergartners and elementary-school kids who are homeless, in transitional housing or in shelters. They attend The Learning Center for Children, a Downtown school for kids without housing.

The Elliot Park program draws about 50 children each afternoon for three-hour sessions split between academics and playtime. The Learning Center for Children, 905 4th Ave. S., partnered with Elliot Park Neighborhood, Inc. (EPNI), and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, on the first-of-its kind program Downtown for homeless youth.

Although it's difficult to track the number of homeless children in Minneapolis, a recent survey by the St. Paul-based Wilder Research Center indicated that Hennepin County had 1,138 homeless children in 2003, according to data collected by shelter providers.

During the school week, the bell rings at the Learning Center at 1:30 p.m., leaving the students with a lot of time without adult supervision. Before the afterschool program, most returned to the shelter or to transitional housing with nothing to do.

Anissa Keyes, director of the afterschool program, said the teachers and volunteers provide the students with a safe, comfortable environment and help reinforce what they learned at the Learning Center.

"It's sort of a home away from home for them -- a way to keep their academics going," she said at the Elliot Park Recreation Center as children darted around her. "I think it is very important because a lot of the kids don't have any other place to go after school. It not only helps with growth, it helps with their academics. It gives them a place that is stable and secure. It is structured. ... A lot of kids are coming from chemical-dependency homes. Some don't even have homes."

Education students from Elliot Park-based North Central University are working on creating lesson plans for the students. A couple of teachers from the Learning Center also spend time with the children in the afternoons.

Keyes said she'd like to see the program expand and better serve students and their families struggling to make ends meet.

"I'd love to see us able to fulfill more of these kids' basic needs," she said. "We have a lot of kids come and they're hungry. They start out at school at 6 a.m., so it's like a 13- or 14-hour day for them, and they go home and I don't know if they eat," she said. "I know a lot of them come back and they're very hungry -- eating crumbs out of their backpack."

Besides providing students an opportunity to play with friends, work on art projects and learn new sports, among other things, the after-school program is encouraging students to be engaged in the community.

For some of the children, the Elliot Park afterschool program allows them to try their hand at new crafts.

Catherine Strickland, 11, said she enjoys "creating things like sculptures and pictures frames."

Her friend Walter Ruskin, another 11-year-old, originally from Chicago, said he prefers sports to arts-and-crafts, particularly basketball and three-step tag.

"I also like snack time -- Reeses from the vending machine," he said. I also like when we watch movies and have parties and stuff."

In January, students raised $300 by selling cookies to help the family of two children enrolled in the program left homeless when a fire destroyed their house in North Minneapolis.

The family has since moved into another house on the North side after a temporary stay at the Harriet Tubman Center, a shelter in South Minneapolis.

Joycelyn Robertson, the children's mother, said her son, Jeremiah, 10, and daughter, Donna, 8, have enjoyed their time at the afterschool program.

"They do their homework there, they learn about history and they have little parties," she said.

The rapid growth of the afterschool program has neighborhood leaders looking for extra hands to keep student-to-volunteer ratios around 10 to 1.

When the program started, three staff worked with the children, now Anissa depends on seven part-time staff members and about 30 volunteers from North Central University.

Tom Reid, executive director of EPNI, said he's pleased to see the program become such a success and is working on securing funding to keep it running.

The neighborhood group has relied on funding from Minneapolis Public Schools and the Whitney Foundation to pay for the program. In 2002, the Whitney Foundation selected Elliot Park for a two-year, $110,000 grant to assist with community development projects.

Some of that grant money has gone toward the afterschool program, Reid said.

"The kids really like going there. They want to be out there doing positive things," he said. "My sense is that this is a huge benefit for the parents who might otherwise have challenges getting things done during those three hours in the afternoon. What's really striking to me is that if we hadn't done this, these kids wouldn't have any afterschool activities whatsoever."