It’s 7:30 a.m. on a steamy Tuesday morning in July. A mother is heading out the door to work, like she does every day. But since school is out, her morning routine is different. Born out of her desire to keep her children safe while she is at her job, she kisses them good-bye, tells them where the snacks are, gives them permission to watch TV, and locks the door.
She’s one of thousands of low-income working parents who cannot afford a summer program for her children or who are not aware that free, low-cost camps and other activities are available through her local community organization.
kids pay the price
“Without our summer programs, children would most likely be at home, often without adult supervision,” says Sheila Balboni, Executive Director of The Community Group in Lawrence. “In addition to the negative impact on children’s safety and well-being when they are home alone, children who do not participate in any academic activities over the summer experience a greater degree of summer learning loss than their peers.”
In fact, during the summer months, 11 percent of children 6-12 years old spend an average of 10 hours a week on their own.
“Summer is a time when lack of affordable child care, food insecurity, plus learning loss and achievement gap all join forces to create a very stressful situation for the low-income families and children we serve,” says Lindsay Smythe, Executive Director of the Medford Boys & Girls Club. “So many youth have limited or no options for a safe, positive and fun experience.”
According to the Massachusetts Afterschool Partnership, Massachusetts families who pay for summer learning programs spend an average $475 per week – a cost that is prohibitive for most of these families. This makes affordable summer opportunities invaluable.
summer opportunities in sight
West End House in Allston Brighton is one of these critical community programs. With 75% of their members living below the poverty level, summer day camps are out of reach. Through donor support, West End House is able to offer annual membership to their programming at just $15 per year, with summer programming at no additional fee.
“This makes summer programming financially viable for our members and their families,” says Andrea Howard, CEO of West End House. “United Way is playing a significant role in keeping our community healthy and vibrant during the summer.”
The benefits of summer programs, particularly to low-income children who would otherwise just be home, are many. Across the region, community-based organizations offer a wide variety of activities that provide academic enrichment, field trips, theater programs, and outdoor experiences like tennis, sailing and boating. Many also offer critical career development programs and paid employment for teens.
Addressing youth unemployment
This is especially important as youth employment rates remain low. According to a study released this week by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, in Massachusetts last year only 26 percent of those age 16-19 had jobs and research shows that teens from poor families land summer jobs at nearly half the rate as upper-middle-class families. The summer job programs at community agencies provide not only supplemental income for teens and their families, but leadership and career skills that offer lasting benefits.
For example, UTEC in Lowell offers a Workforce Development and Social Enterprise program for older youth, many of whom have criminal histories and gang involvement, making them among the hardest to reach during the summer. Their program offers paid employment, workforce training and one-to-one coaching and mentoring to assist them with their goals and challenges.
“Our program serves youth who have already slipped through the cracks of other programs and have fallen into homelessness, correctional facilities, gangs, or teen parenting,” says Gregg Croteau, Executive Director at UTEC. “Without additional supports like those offered at UTEC, these youth are far less likely to transition to productive adulthood.”
Filling a basic need
Nutrition has also emerged as a key component of summer programs, because so many of the children served in community-based programs qualify for free or reduced price lunch programs during the school year and 6 out of 7 students lose that benefit when school lets out. According to the national Afterschool Alliance, 86% of summer learning programs serve students breakfast, lunch, dinner or a snack.
Locally, for example, YMCA of Greater Boston provides nutritious meals to over 3,500 youth at 21 summer camp locations. The Kids in Motion Cafe at West End House even serves dinners from scratch for over 250 youth daily.
Leo Delaney, Executive Director of Ellis Memorial, sums it up this way: “Summer programming that meets the needs of working families while providing youth with fun, engaging activities that help them grow and learn is a win-win.”
It’s more than a win for parents who, thanks to these community programs, will be able to leave for work on a July morning knowing their kids will be safe, fed, and engaged in positive activities with peers and supportive adults. It’s a life saver.