Afterschool program enriches kids, strengthens families and businesses in Boone County

October 11, 2017

For more than 15 years, the Boone County Foundation Fund has been known for its leadership in raising and granting charitable dollars for important community investments.

In addition to spearheading major projects, such as the Albion Family Aquatic Center, the fund has been a longtime supporter of the county’s arts council, the senior center, area fire and rescue units and countless other community services.

In recent years, Boone County Foundation Fund advisory committee members also have assumed an increasingly proactive role in facilitating community discussion. Working with county and city officials, and representatives of other nonprofit organizations, the Boone County fund is an active partner in articulating and pursuing a strategic vision for the community.

The fund’s unrestricted endowment — now totaling nearly $1.5 million — provides a growing capacity to act on critical needs and opportunities.

In 2016, for example, the affiliated fund of Nebraska Community Foundation provided structure and financial support for a planning committee on child care. A former teacher, Lindsey Jarecki, led an effort to find out what the community needed most. Through months of research, surveys and visiting with providers and families, the committee determined that after-school programming was a primary need.

“With more and more families moving into the area, we needed to provide better support. Employees literally had to leave work so they could pick up their kids after school. This hurts both the employer and the family,” Jarecki said.

Last fall, the Boone County fund presented its case to the board of Boone Central Schools and offered to play a leading role in launching and supporting an after-school program in partnership with the school district.

Mollie Morrow, the program’s director, said, “Initially, it was going to be just that — an after-school program where kids could get a nutritious snack, have care, and work on homework.”

But at the same time, the Nebraska Community Foundation was working with its colleagues in education to identify communities that had the capacity to participate in a grant-funded pilot program called the Nebraska Expanded Learning Opportunity (ELO) Design Challenge. The goal is to create programs that can be replicated in other districts across the state.

With its early success in demonstrating community support, Boone County was a great fit. In December 2016, the school board agreed to be part of a 30-month, $893,000 collaborative grant program with four other districts: Auburn, Beatrice, Centura and Grand Island. In early 2017, Boone Central Schools was awarded the ELO grant.

“Working together with the Boone County Foundation Fund was a big step up for Boone Central when it came to competing for the grant,” Morrow said. “We are a unique district in that we had support right off the bat from the fund.

The ELO grant allows the school to tap into community and school partners to establish sustainable after-school programing with a strong STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) focus.

“Having a partnership between the school and the community is key to establishing a program like this, but it also creates ties between the kids, businesses, and people,” she said. “Our hope is to develop a model for other districts across the state, ensuring kids are being challenged beyond the school day.”

A stimulating educational environment for children is a critical element for creating a community where students, parents and businesses will thrive. The Boone County fund took the lead by supporting initial research and planning for a quality after-school program. Now it provides salary support for the program director’s position.

The Cardinal Kids Club opened in September and currently serves 33 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Activities are designed around the students’ interests and sometimes based on gender and age.

In addition to traditional after-school programming, Boone Central’s curriculum is rooted in STEM topics. The local 4-H Extension service has helped with some initial programs. Third- through fifth-graders have designed wearable technology in the form of a bowtie. Younger children have designed and tested wind-powered boats constructed with recycled materials.

Longer-term plans include partnering with UNL Extension to provide weekly programs on nutrition. The 4-H robotics program will expand for both younger and older kids. A retired art teacher will offer lessons to students wishing to express themselves artistically.

“The after-school program is such a blessing for our family and my kids,” said Lynn Webster of Albion. “The enrichment opportunities they have are invaluable. I have been so impressed with the organization and engagement of our program! I am truly grateful!”

The cost of the program is only $30 per week. Morrow said settling on a fee that covers the program expenses but doesn’t place a heavy burden on working families is an ongoing balancing act.

However, after several weeks of successful operation, Morrow said she and her staff are looking at the possibility of expanding the program and its offerings.

“Our goal is to continue assisting working families as well as extending our programming to other kids in the community who aren’t in our care on a daily basis. Looking ahead we would like to partner with local businesses and individuals to bring some of our community’s unique talents and resources to our kids. Our community has much to offer, and we want our kids to be aware of this as they grow up and make career decisions,” Morrow said.

“This is a community commitment, in the same way the community invests in other public services. I try always to remain true to my core belief in doing what is best for kids and for working families,” she added.

Kurt Kruse, chairman of the Boone County fund, said, “We plan to continue our commitment to sustain this program. It is long-term investments like this that make our community stronger going forward.”

This past summer, the Boone County Foundation Fund stepped forward again to explore the concept of a community-based child-care center. In its call for responses to its online survey, the fund noted that availability of quality child-care affects community members with and without children. Specifically, childcare impacts economic development. Without child-care, Boone County businesses are unable to hire and retain employees with children.

In Boone County, “Together a Greater Nebraska” is more than a slogan. It is a work in progress.