Editor's note: This is the seventh in a series of stories highlighting the 21 agencies to receive United Way's annual campaign funds. The next article will run in Tuesday's edition of The Telegram.

BY LAURIE SISK

lsisk@gctelegram.com

In 2006, the Garden City Recreation Commission first began to receive funding from the United Way for it's growing Summer Playground Program.

When the program began in 1987, GCRC Assistant Superintendent Donna Gerstner said, the program charged a nominal fee for children to attend.

"We continued that program, run just by us, not incorporating a whole lot of different organizations to make it a better program until the community came to us and wanted to do something that kept kids off the street and kept them out of trouble," Gerstner said. "We were charging and quite honestly, not every kid could afford the program at the time. And we couldn't do it for free. So with the help of United Way, in 2006, we changed the program to make it free, and to put these different components in to provide education and another site. There are three sites now versus one before. Before, we had 60 kids in the program. Now we have close to 300."

Gerstner said that for the children they were targeting in 2006 the kids she said really needed the program the United Way funding made a huge difference.

"The fact that we incorporated picking up kids in those outlying areas, where the kids are at home by themselves and have no way to get to the program, was key," Gerstner said. "They say if you build it, they will come. Well, they won't come unless they can get there."

She said that since 2006, GCRC started to see a lot of kids that were never seen in any other programs.

She said that since United Way funding helped change it to a free program, there has been a downturn in juvenile intakes by law enforcement during the months of June and July.

"You can't say it's directly correlated," Gerstner said, "But that's when something big happened in the community, the Playground Program was enabled at all three sites and all of a sudden the numbers dropped and they continue to drop."

According to Gerstner, In 2004, during June and July, 964 youth were detained. In 2006, it dropped to 884. In 2010, youth crimes were highest in February, March and December, when youth were out of school, but in June and July, the numbers were actually lower.

"That tells you that when the kids are out of school, that's when they are going to get into trouble. But if you've got something for them to do, not so much." Gerstner said. "People need to give to the United Way, because without programs like this, these children wouldn't have a beneficial program. If we can keep the kids off the streets and have them doing something positive, there's less chance they will get involved in something that's not positive, such as crime."

GCRC's Summer Playground Program was allocated $8,100 from the United Way this year. Gerstner said that money is used primarily to fund the Finnup Park site and covers about two-thirds of the expense of the program there.

She said the East Garden Village site is run by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Finney and Kearny Counties.

Gerstner said there are other agencies that help with the program's success at the three sites at Finnup Park, Scout Park and East Garden Village.

"It takes several different groups to help us make this program," Gerstner said. "The Western Kansas Community Foundation helps with it. We also have the City Alcohol Tax Fund helps with that, along with the Finnup Foundation."

Gerstner said free meals are provided to the children through the USD 457 lunch program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"This may be the only healthy meal they get that day, and at least four times a week, during the summer, they are going to have a healthy meal each day." Gerstner said.

According to Gerstner, the goals of the program are to provide a supervised atmosphere with more than just a playground, but to have arts and crafts, fun games and some educational components.

"We have brought in Finney County Extension to some of the programming for us," Gerstner said. "We also have the Books on the Bus program (B.O.B.) that comes each week so the kids can check out a book."

The Life Skills Educational program, administered by the Finney County Health Coalition, also is incorporated into the Summer Playground Program sites. There, the kids learn about making the right choices, such as staying away from drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

"They also learn what particular drugs can do to you," Gerstner said. "If you tell a kid no and don't explain why, the kid says "Well, I don't know why you tell me no.'"

Gerstner said the program continues to thrive.

"It's been very successful. Despite the heat this past summer, the kids kept coming. I think the key to the program every year is the actual instructors. We continue to work on training them and making them better at working with the children," Gerstner said.

The program employs 12 staff members, including 10 assistant leaders and two leaders at the Scout and Finnup Park sites.

In addition to the Summer Playground Program, the following agencies also will receive United Way Funds in 2012: Meals on Wheels, United Methodist Mexican-American Ministries; Garden City Family YMCA; Kansas Children's Service League; Santa Fe Trail Council Boy Scouts; Catholic Social Services; Family Crisis Services; Spirit of the Plains, CASA; The Salvation Army; Habitat for Humanity; Finney County RSVP, Inc.; Garden City Chapter of the Red Cross; Miles of Smiles; Russell Child Development Center; Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association; United Cerebral Palsy of Kansas; Big Brothers Big Sisters of Finney and Kearny Counties; Community Day Care; and Girl Scouts of Kansas Heartland.

Summer Playground Program

Contact; Donna Gerstner

Address: 310 N. 6th St.

Phone: 276-1200

Website: www.gcrec.com

email: recoffice@garden-city.org