Bringing the Kids to the Mountain

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Circulating: City buses shuttle youth from pick-up points in St. Paul to youth programs, including Youth Farm, a Boys & Girls Club and the Baker Recreation Center.

Any restaurateur will tell you that you can have the finest food, staff and ambiance in town, but if you’re in a spot where people have trouble getting to you, you’ll be staring at empty tables. After-school program directors know the feeling.

Many an after-school program has gone all-out on high-quality programming, well-trained staff, up-to-date resources for the kids and a spiffy environment, only to wither because too many kids just can’t get there.

The transportation dilemma is especially vexing for programs in rural areas. “If we can’t pick the kids up, we often have to turn them away,” says Elva Smith, director of the Kinship program at the Indianhead Community Action Agency in Ladysmith, Wis.

It’s also a problem in cities where public transit systems are sparse, or aren’t set up to connect kids between schools and after-school programs. “Transportation is a huge issue for all youth agencies serving Rapid City,” says Mark Kline, club director at The Club for Boys in that South Dakota city.

But in Rapid City, The Club is one of several youth-serving agencies that have taken the problem by the horns, so to speak: They use buses and vans to take kids from schools to their programs.

Yes, that can be costly. But The Club says it has seen a big payoff: a 30 percent increase in attendance from the schools where it provides transportation.

Using your own buses is just one of the ways that agencies tackle the transportation issue. Other agencies align with public transportation, some combine programs to share costs, and others ask their employees use their own cars.

Crystal FitzSimons, senior policy analyst for the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), says transportation is an especially big issue for programs serving at-risk youth. FRAC recently analyzed the impact of the Child Nutrition and Women, Infants, and Children Reauthorization Act of 2004, which provides funding for transporting rural kids to food sites.

FitzSimons says transportation is the biggest barrier to getting kids to participate in the federally funded Summer Food Service Program. (See related story, page 30.) “The most successful programs are those that pick kids up and bring them to a central location,” she says. For that, agencies typically lease vans or buses.

Others, like the summer food program for the North Bend Southern District in Oregon, have purchased vans with grant funds. The Fresno County Economic Opportunity Commission in California combines its Meals on Wheels delivery with the summer food program deliveries, which allows the programs to share transportation costs.

Being in a rural area compounds the challenge. “When you talk about rural areas, you’re talking about smaller numbers of kids,” FitzSimons says. “Kids are spread out across a larger mass of land. Parents are working, and the cost of gas can also deter them from participating.”

That’s the problem for the Indianhead Community Action Agency in Wisconsin, where employees and volunteers for the Kinship after-school program provide transportation in their personal vehicles.

“If we did not provide transportation to special events, we wouldn’t have enough people to do them,” says Smith, the program director.

Even in cities such as St. Paul, Minn., transportation is a problem. “A lot of families don’t have cars,” says Marnie Wells, former initiative coordinator at the Second Shift Initiative, which serves youth during non-school hours.

Coming up with the money for vehicles, gas and insurance isn’t always the biggest challenge.

“Finding qualified drivers is a problem,” says Scott Bader, executive director of The Club for Boys. One possible reason is that the job doesn’t pay real well and covers only 15 hours a week. The Club uses two retirees and two employees to drive its vehicles.

It’s much easier to overcome these issues in big cities with good transportation networks. In New York City, for example, public school students can get free subway cards that are good for three trips a day.

Some programs get around the challenge by holding their activities in the schools, because the youths are already there. Susan Brenna, director of The After-School Corp. (TASC) in New York City, says that’s what her organization promotes.

“It’s easier for families and safer for kids not to have to travel,” she says. “But programmatic reasons take precedence over transportation. It’s easier to align the programs with what’s going on in the school if they’re held in the school.”

Kline, of The Club for Boys, believe kids need a new outlet after school, as well as a change of scene.

Bader, The Club’s executive director, says youth-serving agencies should work together more on transportation. He cites Rapid City as an example: The Club, YMCA and Girls Inc. have their own transportation systems. “I would like to see us partner with other organizations instead of everybody going their own way,” he says.

That’s what St. Paul’s Second Shift Initiative tries to do, by coordinating the operation of buses called Circulators, which offer free transportation to young people in certain city communities. The buses have designated stopping places at schools, libraries, recreation centers and youth clubs.

“What we wanted to do was plug into the after-school and summer programs and create connections,” says Wells, the former coordinator.

On the following pages are examples of how some programs are meeting the transportation challenge.

Deborah Huso is a freelance writer in Blue Grass, Va.