Growing in LEAPs and Bounds

By Beacon Staff

BIGFORK – The first steps into the foyer at Crossroads Christian Church show you a view of book bags, jackets and lunch boxes piled up around the edges of the room. A line of windows in the facing wall gives a glimpse into the sanctuary; chock full of gymnastics equipment with kids surrounding Cathy Gaiser, awaiting their turn, and some instruction.

It’s that time right in between school getting out and parents getting off work, and its LEAP time.

“It’s really been a humbling experience how fast people have jumped on board,” says LEAP director Gaiser, “it’s almost overwhelming how fast it’s grown.” The second year of the after-school Leadership, Education, Athletics, Partnership (LEAP) program in Bigfork wrapped up Friday, May 30th. Gaiser says in their first year the program served 90 kids. This past school year that number more than doubled to 186.

Gaiser says they saw a need in Bigfork for a place for kids to go. “It just goes to show that there’s just not a whole lot to do,” says Gaiser, “we heard of a lot of 6 or 7 year olds staying home alone after school just watching TV.”

SafeYouth.org provides a reference for communities working to prevent violence and substance abuse in children and teens. It cites national crime statistics that show children are most likely to be hurt by crime between 2 and 6 PM, and most likely to be party to it between 3 and 4 PM. SafeYouth and local crime and substance abuse prevention organizations tout after-school programs as a way to provide structure and safety for students.

“When kids get out of school, until 6 or 6:30 when parents get home, is when kids are at risk because they’re unsupervised,” says Linda Ravicher, Project Director of the STOP Underage Drinking in the Flathead Coalition.

Fun learning, safety, and structure are goals Gaiser has set out with LEAP.

“To lift these kids up a little bit,” says Gaiser, “give them a safe place, a good place.”

The LEAP program states our goal is to ensure that every child has access to quality, affordable after-school programs. Children in after-school programs earn better grades than their peers. They show greater interest in school, learn new skills, and exhibit improved behavior.

On an average after-school day, students from Bigfork and Swan River schools hop the LEAP bus to Crossroads at 3 PM. There’s snack time, followed by a “Power Hour” where students can get help with homework, read, play cribbage, or some other quiet activity. Then at 4 they break up into different options: either over to art, gymnastics, science and computers, or music. The options change periodically. Gaiser describes units ranging from “Science in the Kitchen” to rocketry, tap dancing, and musical keyboarding.

By 5, parents start showing up, and the activities are looser – more games, drawing, and even later the kids can hit the foosball, basketball, or air hockey tables.

“It’s structured, but not as much as school,” says Gaiser.

Gaiser says the cost of the program is 75-dollars a month, which includes food, staff, materials, and rent for the facilities. About 40 of the 186 enrolled during the 2007-8 school year were under scholarship. LEAP keeps close contact with the Bigfork school district: any student who qualifies for the school’s free and reduced lunch program also qualifies for a LEAP scholarship.

Funds come from the annual “LEAP Spring Fiesta,” and federal help through a 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant. Bigfork combined with schools in Kila, Marion, Glacier Gateway, and Canyon Elementary in the summer of 2007 to apply for a grant. The 5 schools were awarded a $435,000 grant over 5 years. Of that, Bigfork gets the largest annual chunk, $45,000, due to population and needs. Gaiser says Bigfork is the only one who holds their program outside the school.

Gaiser says the $75-per month fee only covers half the cost of running the program, making the donations from their annual fundraiser vital to provide scholarships and to keep the costs low. Of about 25 people working at LEAP a week, Gaiser says only 7 are paid staff. The rest are community and a dedicated group of high school volunteers.

On one of the last days of LEAP Gaiser is wrapping up the gymnastics session. One student asks what happens when they get too old for LEAP.

“You know what,” Gaiser answers him, “you guys can come back forever because when you get too old, you can come back and volunteer.”

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