School’s out today, and kids on Tacoma’s East Side are looking at a summer short on supervised programs to keep them safe and engaged.
This is the first summer in decades without any all-day Boys & Girls Clubs programs in that part of the city.
This is the summer that Tacoma Housing Authority no longer can afford to pay for a day camp run by Northwest Leadership Foundation at Lister Elementary School in Salishan.
Even the Swan Creek Library is closed, a victim of city budget cuts.
Now, at the 11th hour, representatives from Metro Parks Tacoma, the Boys & Girls Clubs and Tacoma Housing Authority are still trying to piece together a few hours of programming at the East Side parks where kids can get free snacks and lunches.
“The lack of a plan for the summer is very troubling,” said Tacoma City Councilman Marty Campbell.
Gloria Morehouse, who has worked with young people in the area for decades, sees programs that she and hundreds of others helped develop slipping away.
“Whenever we’ve lost services, we have gang problems,” Morehouse said. “We know that, so why are we going back to it?”
Meanwhile, parents – many of whom work and are low-income – have been scrambling on their own to find free or inexpensive options, including vacation Bible schools at neighborhood churches.
So far, the Portland Avenue Community Center, 3513 Portland Ave., has the only summer day camp scheduled for the East Side. From July 18 through Aug. 12, for $25 a week, kids will spend the morning learning break dancing and the afternoons singing and dancing, like the students in television’s “Glee.”
Appealing as that Metro Parks program is, it’s a drastic reduction from the six-week day camp at Salishan. It’s also a far cry from the affordable, reliable programs the Boys & Girls Clubs ran until last year at the former East Side club – and still do run in South and North End Tacoma and on the Hilltop.
“Everything is going away,” said Laura Rodriguez, director at Portland Avenue Community Center.
Rodriguez, who has worked at the center for 14 years, sees nothing good in that. Even when there are supervised options, they don’t reach all the kids who need them.
“Last summer, we had a huge amount of kids hanging out, fighting and picking on each other,” Rodriguez said. “We had a rough summer.”
Children can still go to parks all they want, of course. They can get free lunch and snacks, plus some supervision, at some parks. But they are free to leave whenever they want.
Even East Siders who love the area say some parts of it, and some people in it, are just not safe for kids.
“I’ve got a 13-year-old. I don’t want him wandering around the East Side unsupervised,” said resident Nancy Davis, who is raising her middle school grandson. Davis also works for Metro Parks.
Davis, Morehouse and Campbell were among the East Siders who pressured the Boys & Girls Clubs to continue a summer program last school year, after they had planned to end it.
The Boys & Girls Clubs operates an after-school program at Bethlehem Baptist Church, 4818 E. Portland Ave., and will do so again next school year.
Good Hope Community Church of God in Christ is purchasing the former Boys & Girls Clubs building and plans to use it as a community center. The Rev. Larry W. Carter said it hopes to integrate members of the community into its educational and leadership programs for families. He plans to hold the first service there July 10.
But these aren’t the traditional summer youth programs that Davis, Morehouse and Campbell are talking about.
They agree with Boys & Girls Clubs publicity that says the nonprofit helps kids grow up to be strong, good citizens. They appreciate the financial backing that allows kids to attend summer programs for $30, $60 or $90 a week or, if necessary, for free.
But the Boys & Girls programs in other parts of town are out of the reach of kids whose parents can’t drive them, or are too young to ride the bus alone across town.
Youth programs work best, Campbell said, when they’re in the neighborhood, available to children who have the least and need them the most.
That works for taxpayers, too. Kids who stay out of trouble grow up to be taxpayers instead of drains on the justice system.
The sites are there. Lister housed the day camp, which cost $39,500 for an exciting six weeks of fun and field trips. The decommissioned Gault Middle School has a pool and playfields – and neighbors who want it occupied.
The lack of a plan can still be fixed. Community leaders should convene an open meeting next week for everyone with the will, ideas or assets to fix this mess by July 1.
If we don’t do right by the East Side’s young people, we will all pay.
Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677