It was after seeing the mother come into the YMCA center in West Chester that Helen Flanders realized the reach of the Believe & Achieve program had really broadened.
“She was Spanish-speaking and she asked in very halting English, ‘is this the place to come for the homework?’ and I thought, ‘yup, this is it’.”
Believe & Achieve at the Y is an after-school enrichment program and summer camp that offers in-need children 5 to 15 a safe place to go, have something to eat, do their homework and have some fun.
“It’s built on four basic pillars,” said Flanders, who is executive director of the Oscar Lasko YMCA Youth Program Center on East Chestnut Street where the program is offered. “[They are] character values, school success, nutrition and physical exercise.” Those pillars also reflect the YMCA’s core values of caring, honest, respect and responsibility, she said.
Natalie Gonzalez, left, shops with Santa Claus in the Believe & Achieve after school program Holiday Shop at Oscar Lasko YMCA Youth Program Center in West Chester
Believe & Achieve offers the children a “safe haven” to come after school, when circumstances might put them in an unsupervised environment that could lead to undesirable or risky behaviors.
“We surveyed these parents and asked them where their children would be (after school) if (the parents) weren’t there,” Flanders said. The parents said some of the children would be home alone or some in care of siblings who weren’t old enough to supervise them. They could be glued to the television or video games. They could be getting into trouble. There was also concern that the children wouldn’t be completing their homework.
Believe & Achieve attempts to address these concerns, by offering a secure place to go between 3 and 6 p.m. It’s available five days a week with homework help and an organized game usually run by counselors, such as basketball or soccer.
They also serve the children a “light supper” – a nutritionally balanced meal provided by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. And for kids who don’t like an item on the menu, there is a “sharing table” for others who might love those cheese sticks with marinara sauce.
The children are encouraged to do service projects, such as writing to military servicemen and women or visiting senior citizens. For these activities they can earn B&A bucks, which they could use at the recent holiday shop to “purchase” new, donated gifts for adults in their lives.
The program was initially part of the Police Athletic League, but funding cuts caused it to merge with the YMCA. The Believe & Achieve Foundation, founded in 2010 by Chester Springs resident and Auto Zone president Fred Gunther, started supporting the effort and it became the program it is today. The West Chester Police Department is still involved in the program, Flanders said, with WCPD detective John O’Hare sitting on the foundation board.
To participate in the program, which during the school year is offered at no cost, most of the children are referred to the YMCA by a school counselor, social worker or sometimes the police department. Sometimes the referrals come from the community. Eligibility is generally income-based, but other risk factors are considered.
The summer camp, which runs from noon to 6 p.m., costs $10 a week, but Flanders said they were hoping to make that free as well.
About three years ago, volunteer and social worker Noemi Viveros told YMCA officials she saw a need in the immigrant Latino community – especially for those who knew little to no English. There was a great concern among these parents that they couldn’t help their children with their homework or that their kids might need extra help.
Viveros spread the word among community members that there was a place their children could go for help – and it would be a safe place for the kids while the parents were at work.
“This program has helped a lot of families,” Viveros said. “Instead of a child just watching TV or playing video games they can be active and get something to eat. They can get homework help in a safe place. After their homework, they have something to do.”
Often students having problems in school can’t participate in after-school activities. “One little girl told me she wouldn’t be (in B&A) next year, because she joined the track team and was going to be a cheerleader,” Flanders said, pleased that the homework aid was helping. “They [might not] come after school, but they do come back [to visit].”
The program itself is run by director Justin Koffenberger, eight paid staff and numerous volunteers – 91 in 2013. Many of them are West Chester University students, which Flanders says the younger kids love.
“They like being taught by the cooler (WCU) students,” she said with a laugh.
Social worker Viveros is hopeful that the effect of B&A will make a difference in the children’s lives.
“My hope is that these children, who go to Believe and Achieve, will stay away from drugs and gangs. That they know there are other ways. And they know that their parents are working,” she said.
The Believe & Achieve Foundation recently funded the start of the program at the Brandywine YMCA, with the aim of helping children in Coatesville. Foundation president Gunther said he hopes eventually to offer the program to all the YMCAs in Chester County.
Gunther said he thinks one of the most important things the children gain from Believe & Achieve is confidence.
“It’s a difference maker, I think,” he said. “Something they can keep with them for the rest of their lives.”
More information about Believe & Achieve at the Y is available at www.ymcabwv.org/youth-program-center.
Natalie Smith may be contacted at DoubleSMedia@rocketmail.com.