Wallingford afterschool programs help kids recover from pandemic losses

WALLINGFORD — Afternoons can get pretty loud at the Ulbrich Clubhouse of the Boys & Girls Club. About 60 kids from kindergarten through eighth grade were bused in from their schools to the clubhouse at 72 Grand St. in Wallingford on Thursday. As kids lined up to check in, they chattered with each other and gave high-fives to the staff who checked them in.

Outside of efforts from teachers and school administrators, after school programs like the Boys and Girls club are working to help kids recover from losses in social, emotional and physical health caused by the pandemic through whole-person approaches. 

The after school program at the club ends at 6 p.m. and provides members with a snack, homework support and age-appropriate programming. For the small group led by site coordinator Lisa Brown, the programming included the choice between playing Just Dance or drawing their favorite memory.

The clubhouse’s average daily attendance in December 2022 was 63 children, said Resource Development Director John Noonan. He added that this ongoing program provides kids with a sense of community and togetherness. 

“The kids really need to be together,” he said. “Being with other kids, there’s no substitute for that.” 

Social challenges

Jermaine Mitchell has been working at the club since 2015 and has seen a lot of changes. The Ulbrich Boys & Girls Club in Wallingford and the Boys & Girls Club of New Haven merged in July of last year. He also remembers a few months during the pandemic where the club provided all-day academic support for kids.

“We know we’re doing a good job when the parents arrive early and the kids say they want to stay,” Mitchell said.

Even though membership for the K-8 program has returned to pre-pandemic levels, Mitchell noticed that lockdowns and school closures affected kids’ social interactions.

“So many kids have social challenges in dealing with other kids,” he said.

To help kids live a more healthy lifestyle, Boys & Girls clubs nationwide implement a Triple Play, which focuses on integrating mind, body and soul through physical activity. 

In practice, Brown said this often looks like an activity like kickball, yoga, or interactive Simon Says that emphasizes working as a team and showing good sportsmanship.  

Academic challenges

Camila Gabriel is the owner Crest Educational and provides homework help and SAT prep for students who need help improving their level of academics. After the pandemic, she noticed a lag in reading and writing levels for all children. 

“I think a lot of the academics are only just starting to catch up. If they're catching up at all,” she said. “If [students] didn't have an educator at home or if they didn't have a parent at home, who could take the time to actually figure out what the teacher was trying to teach, they are completely lost.”

Even though Crest pivoted to online sessions a few weeks after lockdown, Gabriel said they are seeing an overall drop in enrollment, especially for SAT preparation sessions. She explained that students didn’t think the test was important since a lot of colleges made standardized testing optional for students. However, she added that a lot of merit scholarships look at test scores. 

Speaking from personal experience, Gabriel can empathize with students who struggle with academics. 

"Educators that have had learning disabilities or have had struggles in school become educators because of the struggle, which is exactly why I became an educator." 

She was diagnosed with dyslexia in first grade and grew up with a single mom who had recently emigrated from Bogotá, Colombia. Because of this, Gabriel said she lacked academic support while she was a student.

"I didn't get any extra classes. I didn't have anybody sit with me and teach me coping strategies or specific decoding strategies to help me figure out the reading," she said. "I hated school. I hated reading. I hated everything that had to do with being in the classroom."

Gabriel studied child psychology and didn’t have an interest in education until she became a part of a program that tutored students in the basement of an inner city church in Norristown, Pennsylvania. Gabriel said the experience inspired her to get a master's in education from Quinnipiac University. 

"I never, ever, ever, ever wanted to become a teacher. Never in my wildest thoughts did I ever think I'd become an educator," she said. 

Gabriel moved to Japan and experienced a daily break where the class would stretch with their teachers and a weekly schoolwide exercise class. 

Health & Wellness 

At Crest, Gabriel integrates her career as an educator with her interest in exercise. Despite struggling with academics, Gabriel has always considered herself an athlete and grew up swimming from the age of 6 all through college. She also saw her students’ physical health change as a result of the pandemic.

“There's been a lot of different health issues, weight gain, nutrition, has absolutely been affected,” she said. “There was an increase of calories consumed versus a decrease of movement because kids weren't having recess. They weren't having gym class. They weren't going to their soccer practice.”

Gabriel also offers Health & Wellness consultations as a Certified Personal Trainer from the National Academy of Sports Medicine. She explained that kids don’t do their own shopping or meal prep, so she often works with parents on exercise, shopping and nutrition.

“I like to work with the one parent so that I can help them make their meal prep, do their shopping, so that that information or that knowledge or that lesson trickles down to the rest of the family,” she said.

She explained that increasing physical activity also helped kids who had challenges with mental health.

“One of the big things that parents can do for mental health is encouraging meditation, exercise, things like that, because that releases endorphins that naturally help.”

lguzman@record-journal.com, Twitter: @lguzm_n 

Latino Communities Reporter Lau Guzmán is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Support RFA reporters at the Record-Journal through a donation at https://bit.ly/3Pdb0re. To learn more about RFA, visit www.reportforamerica.org.


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