YMCA School’s Out winning rave reviews from kids

By Kendra Gravelle

Jacob carefully set up his artists’ station at a table in the corner of an open room: one paintbrush, a paint palette and a couple chairs. There was a constant line of takers for a piece of this young artist’s work, and he urged the crowd to consider what they’d like painted on their faces before reaching the front of the line.

“Sheila, I need more red,” Jacob, who is in the fifth grade, shouted across the room.

At the end of each week, children in the Smithfield YMCA’s School’s Out program get to participate in Fun Friday. These kids, who range in age from kindergarteners to sixth-graders, are especially fond of face painting, said Sheila Mahar, Child Care Director at the YMCA. She said that face painting usually happens once a month, although the children request that it be on the Fun Friday schedule every week. She added that the older kids love to feel like they’re in charge.

“I got the big jobs,” Jacob said, wielding his paint brush above his head, before requesting that Mahar fetch him more white paint.

For fourth grader Kirill, the choice about what to have painted on his face was obvious. Jacob was confident as he gently decorated Kirill’s face with orange paint in an attempt to replicate a Cheerio.

“Cheerios are his favorite thing,” explained Matthew, a fourth grader who had requested Jacob paint “Barca,” in support of Barcelona’s soccer team, on his arms. “You should see him at snack time.”

The YMCA hosts its School’s Out program Monday through Friday of each week during the school year. Nearly 30 students from Smithfield elementary schools attend the program before school each day, and around 40 students attend after school, said Shauna Lewis, Senior Program Director at the YMCA. In the mornings, the children are served breakfast, which includes either toast, waffles or cereal, Lewis said. Children receive homework assistance, play card games, do crafts and, weather permitting, play outside. They are then bused to their respective elementary schools.

After school, buses drop the children off at the YMCA between 3:15 and 3:45. In the afternoons, the children participate in organized activities, have snack time and are provided a mandatory homework time, during which counselors are available to help them with any troublesome schoolwork. During Fun Friday, however, there is no homework time, Mahar said, allowing more time to set up extravagant activities.

The children are split into two groups, based on age, Mahar explained. The younger group includes kindergarteners through second graders, while the older group includes children in grades 3 though 6. She explained that dividing the children into two age-based groups makes the most sense, because children’s interests are dependent on their ages.

“The younger kids love imagination games,” Mahar said, “while the older kids will sometimes roll their eyes at that.”

She said that the older group typically better understands complicated activities. The older children also tend to have a team-mentality, whereas the younger children are usually happier participating in activities individually, she added.

Each group has at least two counselors in the room with them at all times, and each counselor has been trained in first-aid and CPR, as well as child abuse prevention and detection, Lewis said.

Lewis said that, while the children love the program, parents have also praised School’s Out for giving them extra time to accomplish what they need to get done during the day. For Hollie Stillwell, a self-employed veterinarian whose son Cathal is a kindergartener in the program, the extra time allows a great deal of job flexibility.

“I don’t have to work around a kindergarten schedule,” she said. “It helps me out immeasurably.”

Stillwell added that she appreciates that the counselors seem to pay particular attention to the kindergarteners. She added that she also appreciates the fact that Cathal speaks frequently of the older kids, and that it’s always in a positive way. She said without hesitation that her younger son, who is three years old, will also attend the program when he enters kindergarten.

“He’s like a mascot,” she said. “Everyone there already knows him. If we go to pick up Cathal and he’s finishing up a craft, as long as they have enough supplies, they always include him too.”

Although it is Mahar’s goal to please everyone, making each child happy can be quite challenging, she said. To combat complaints, she said she likes to come up with a variety of activities to keep the program’s attendees excited.

“I have fun looking up different crafts and games,” she said. “I just imagine what I’d like to do if I were their age.”

Lewis said that Mahar is especially diligent when it comes to switching up the day-to-day activities in order to keep the children interested.

And while it seems everyone loves getting the opportunity to have their face painted, it is only one of the exciting activities favored by the children.

“My favorite thing is swimming, of course,” said Caroline, who is in the second grade, “because it’s really fun!”

Don, a fourth grader who enjoys the free time they’re given to swim around the YMCA’s pool, echoed that sentiment. Lewis explained that every Monday and Friday, the children get the chance to enjoy “free swim,” during which the pool is open only to them. While the children are in the pool, counselors are in the water and on the deck, as well as two lifeguards on duty.

Perhaps more popular than both face painting and swimming for the older kids, though, is Gaga Ball. Gaga Ball, played by the older group, is a game similar to dodge ball, but on a smaller scale. Outside the YMCA is a wooden-framed Gaga pit. Gaga ball participants enter this pit and a ball is tossed in. Similar to dodge ball, the objective of this game is to avoid being hit by the ball. If you get hit, you’re out.

“It’s better than dodge ball,” claimed fourth-grader Matthew, “because in dodge ball, the area is just too big.”

The smaller area makes Gaga Ball much more fast-paced dodge ball, he explained.

Lewis said attendees benefit from the program by having the opportunity to meet children from other elementary schools before attending middle and high school together. Kaylee and Gabi, for example, are second graders who attend different elementary schools, but became friends through the program.

“The first day when she came I met her,” Kaylee said, with a smile. She and Gabi had their faces painted by counselor Jacqueline Ferrara: Gabbi’s with a bunch of flowers, and Kaylee’s to match her preference in animals.

“Butterflies are my favorite animal,” she said.

According to Mahar, parents will often pick their children up from the YMCA later than they need to, because the children enjoy being there so much.

“Some parents will specifically leave kids longer because the kids will yell at them if they’re early.”

The face painting festivities during this particular Fun Friday were certainly no exception to this tendency. One-by-one as parents arrived to pick up their children, they were met with requests to wait outside until they had had their turns getting a face painting.

“I recently got an email from a kid’s grandmother thanking me for making this a fun place where kids want to be,” Mahar said. “Having all these fun options really keeps the kids motivated, active and excited to be here.”