The program provides fun and a free meal for hundreds of area children
VANCOUVER — It may be hard for most of us to comprehend, but nearly two in every 10 children in Clark County often don’t know where or when their next meal will come from. For most of them, public school fills the gap with free or reduced price meals.
But while most youngsters look forward to Summer vacation, others dread the loss of a sure meal every day.
That’s where the McClaskey Family Foundation Summer Playgrounds program comes in. Run by Vancouver Parks and Recreation, with help from the Clark County Parks Foundation, Hough Foundation, the Community Foundation of Southwest Washington, and Share, the program gives hundreds of children a safe place to play and a good meal.
“In the old days we walked eight blocks to the swimming pool by ourselves and we went swimming, and it was nothing for that to happen,” said Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle who, along with Councilor Ty Stober, attended one of the programs at Evergreen Park this week. “Now we’re a little more cautious about where our children go and when they go, and do they go by themselves? So coming to a neighborhood park and having a great opportunity to play, that’s what we want.”
On Wednesday, nearly 60 area students, from ages 6 to 11, were fed pizza, fruits, and veggies, then had a chance to pepper the mayor and councilor with questions.
“How do you get to be mayor?”
“What’s your least favorite part of the job?” (Dealing with cranky people.)
“Do you make taxes?”
“Do you have a limousine?”
The mayor asked a few of her own questions as well, specifically about what kind of changes the kids wanted to see in the park.
“More respect,” said one.
“Less graffiti,” said another.
Others said they would like to see more playground equipment, or tetherball poles.
“They feel ownership with the park and they feel ownership of their neighborhood for all the things that they love,” says Kelly Lund, recreation specialist for Vancouver Parks and Recreation.
The program not only provides activities for area students, it provides job experience for high school students.
“This is a great opportunity for them to put on their resume ‘I showed up on time, I went through a job interview, I made a resume,’” says McEnerny-Ogle. “Some volunteer for a while and then they become paid, but what great workforce experience for them to have.”
This is the 12th consecutive year of the Summer Playgrounds program at Evergreen Park and Lund says more than a few of the students who attended in years past have come back to volunteer or work there.
“What we find the most is that, even our older kids that have aged out, they want to come, they want to be around the park because of the positive atmosphere,” she says.
Ten-year-old Zakiaya Allen was thrilled, not just for the pizza but for a chance to meet the mayor and get interviewed for a news story.
“I was just really happy. I was surprised,” she says, with a mile-wide grin. “I was so excited that I was hardly able to go to sleep last night.”
Programs maxed out
Last year, there were 3,500 total visits to the Summer Playgrounds program, along with meals served, for 259 individual children. So far this year, there have been an average of 134 children per day using the program, an increase of 34 percent over last year.
“The numbers are way up, they’re maxed out,” says Lund. “The kids are having fun, our staff is providing that for them, and the word is getting out.”
The Summer Playgrounds program happens five days a week at Hough Elementary in West Vancouver, Crestline Elementary in East Vancouver, and Evergreen Park for the central part of the city. There are also Playtime in the Park programs every other day at Hearthwood Park and Image Elementary.
The mayor says most of the children at Wednesday’s event walked there from the surrounding area.
“These are neighborhood children, and we know there are children in other neighborhoods that want to have this opportunity,” she says.
And that’s part of the point of inviting the media, to show just how popular the program is, and to encourage the community to step up to help make it available to more neighborhoods and more children.
The program already receives a lot of support from charitable groups, such as the McClaskey Family Foundation, but McEnerny-Ogle says that support can only go so far.
“There are only so many philanthropic groups in the city,” she says, “and asking them to add more to their plate is becoming more difficult.”
The Stronger Vancouver proposal being debated by members of the Vancouver City Council will ask residents what programs and projects they value the most. Among those are proposals for expanded recreation options at area parks, including an expansion of the Summer Playgrounds program.
“Children want a place that’s safe, that they can go and play,” says the mayor. “We know that, and so we’ll ask the citizens if they’ll vote to support something like that.”
From her perspective, McEnerny-Ogle says there’s plenty to like about the Summer Playgrounds program. Studies show students who remain engaged and active during their Summer break generally have an easier time getting back into learning when school picks back up again.
“A first-grader wrote me quite a little story there, with great spelling, complete sentences, capitalization, punctuation. Yay!” said a grinning mayor. “That’s going on the refrigerator.”
Her refrigerator, in fact, is going to be quite full after this week.