The (Under)Value of After-School Programs

When I was growing up in the Minnesota suburbs, I was fortunate enough to participate in out-of-school time programs for several years. Both of my parents worked during the day, so it was important to them that I had a safe place to go after school and during the summer. So, until I was old enough to be home by myself, I attended a program called Project Kids, and when I got a bit older, a different summer program called The Edge. These programs were extremely formative and beneficial to me for several reasons. Project Kids provided a space for me to see my friends who weren’t in the same classes as I was and make friends who went to other schools. Because we had gym and outside time every day, Project Kids gave me the space and freedom to be a healthy and physically active kid. When I get older and started going to The Edge during the summer, we would go on field trips to zoos, amusement parks, plays, etc., every single day. My parents saw the benefits of these programs in how I was able to make friends, stay healthy, and participate in countless enrichment opportunities, and because we had the financial means, I attended these expensive programs for several years. My experiences growing up and benefitting from attending out-of-school time programs was hugely influential in my decision to accept my position with National Health Corps.

As a Community Health and Prevention Coordinator serving at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, much of my work revolves around supporting after-school programs on health and wellness initiatives. Specifically, I help implement a national program called Healthy Out-of-School Time (HOST for short) at after-school programs all throughout Allegheny County. The aim of HOST is to provide support to out-of-school time sites so that they can create healthier out-of-school time environments for their kids. Participation in the program is free, which is essential, as the after-school sites I work with are often extremely underfunded and under-resourced.

For example, one of my first site visits ever was to a program that operated out of the basement of an apartment complex. Naturally, they had very limited space for physical activity. I will always remember that day, as it was a very sobering experience for me to witness such a stark contrast between the highly enriched after-school environments that I grew up in and the extremely under-resourced ones that it was now my job to support. The women who worked at this program were warm and kind, and they cared deeply for their kids. They wanted them to have the same positive experiences and enrichment opportunities as every other kid, despite their disadvantages. They had requested a healthy snack demonstration and a field day for their site, having been fully transparent about their lack of supplies and space. This meant that I had to be creative. So, with the help of some funding from United Way, an organization that I collaborate with to implement HOST, and a few cones, hula hoops, and slightly deflated basketballs, we had a grand field day in the basement of that apartment complex. The kids had a blast making a “Tasty Bug” out of some apple slices and grapes and going through an obstacle course that we created with their cones and hula hoops. In addition to all the smiles and laughter, the part that I’ll never forget about that visit is the gratitude that those women showed me afterward. They were so touched that someone took an hour out of their day to hang out and have fun with their kids, which to me honestly felt like the bare minimum that I could do. In turn, I was touched by their gratitude.

Ever since that day, I’ve strived to support the after-school programs I work with in creating the same kinds of healthy and enriched environments that I was privileged enough to have growing up. After-school programs provide safe spaces where kids can form and strengthen friendships, receive essential academic support, and participate in enrichment activities that they might not normally have access to. Every kid deserves this kind of healthy environment in which to grow, learn, and play, and being able to support after-school programs in this way has been an extremely meaningful and rewarding experience for me.

This post was written by NPHC member Tim Oliver.

Tim serves at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh as an Outreach Coordinator.