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Summer playlists evoke a fantasy of beaches, partying, and a world without stress. As entertaining as those songs can be, they paint a dramatically different picture from the reality facing the families we serve. One month ago, low-income communities in every borough faced the prospect of losing school-based summer programs because of city budget cuts. When you can’t afford child care and your child is suddenly without school, you either leave your job or leave your children to fend for themselves in streets that aren’t always safe. Those optimistic summer anthems are suddenly works of fiction and momentary escape.
It’s a classic example of one step forward and then two steps back. During the school year, children in our school-based programs receive free or reduced lunch and start to bridge the academic achievement gap. In spite of the demonstrated success of these programs, more than 30,000 children faced the prospect of falling behind over the summer. The end of the school year didn’t bring harmonies of carefree living – it brought a chorus of worries about feeding children, maintaining pace with academic development, and keeping children safe.
That’s where our public school-based summer camps should come in. These full-day programs provide nutritious meals, keep children safe, and enrich children’s minds with activities ranging from theater to urban planning.
“Summer programs are just as important as the academic school year,” said Ms. Mendez, a parent at one of our Far Rockaway summer and Afterschool programs. “Our children need the opportunity to stay involved in a stimulating learning environment during the summer season. And parents don’t have to worry about who is going to look after their children even though they have to work.”
“I’m a teacher so I work late and it helps me with timing,” said Ms. Hester, a parent of a middle schooler at one of our Harlem programs. “My son is in summer school, and other summer programs would not have worked out with his partial days.”
“Summer programs also mean there are fewer kids wandering the streets, turning to senseless acts,” Ms. Mendez added.
Ms. Mendez’s concerns are grounded in a reality that affluent families never consider when summer comes. In Far Rockaway, home to our Cure Violence program for preventing and treating violence and trauma, the rate of street violence rises with the temperatures. Our parents count on our summer programs to keep their children out of harm’s way.
At the end of the school year, anyone in the neighborhood of our Jamaica, Queens Afterschool campus could plainly see the desperation to save summer programs. More than 200 parents lined up around the block for the chance to enroll their children. 500 children total vied for only 157 slots. Even with plans to register 20% more children than our mandated allowance, hundreds of families would be left without options.
When it looked like budget cuts were going to cast a shadow on the summer, our staff, families, and supporters stepped up. We collectively raised our voices alongside other community organizations to demand funding. We shared powerful stories of success from summer programming. We gathered on the steps of City Hall, campaigned to call local representatives, and leveraged social media to put pressure on our city leaders to support low-income working families and their children.
The hard work paid off. Together, we saved all of our summer programs and assisted the effort to save over 30,000 summer slots city-wide. While the fight only added to the stress that our families have to face on a daily basis, it was also a reminder of possibility. The campaign shed light on the power of programs that support families and place children in a position to maximize their potential. As Ms. Mendez put it, “The importance of summer programs is that they develop our future successors.” Thanks to robust summer enrichment programs, we’ve seen what our future successors can do when given the right opportunities to shine.