South Portland summer program fills bellies, breaks barriers
SOUTH PORTLAND — At about 8:30 a.m., dozens of children stream into a small room at 80 Brickhill Heights, where a table full of breakfast foods awaited them.
One by one, the kids choose from a selection of cereals, servings of carrots and watermelon, sunflower butter with raisins, french toast and bagels. They have low-fat milk and orange juice to wash it all down.
One child comes in late, disappointed to find no more boxes of Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
"Don't worry," says Jackie Dolbow, a school food service worker and Redbank resident. "I saved one for you. I knew you were going to be late."
After breakfast, the kids play outside until a school bus pulls up at 9:25 a.m. About 30 kids line up and board the bus, which takes them across town to the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Portland at 169 Broadway, where they mingle and play with about 100 other kids.
It's a routine that has been going on five days a week since the end of June, when several private and public organizations came together to give low-income families living in the west end access to healthy breakfasts and summer fun.
Dolbow said the program is filling a significant need in the area.
"A lot of families don't make it through the month on food stamps," she said. "A lot of parents don't see the importance of a good breakfast."
The idea grew out of organizations that partnered to establish a neighborhood resource hub for the Brickhill area, including the Community Partnerships for Protecting Children and Youth Alternatives Ingraham.
The resource hub – along with other west end public improvements – were financed by a $175,000 allocation from the Community Block Grant Development program.
"The city is involved, but we're not leading the show over there," City Manager Jim Gailey said. "It's been a tremendous collaboration between nonprofit and municipal agencies."
CPPC Project Coordinator Robbie Lipsman said the summer program is helping community organizations and neighborhood residents break down barriers, both physical and cultural.
"We're trying to bring the sense of community back," Lipsman said.
Lipsman said families only need to pay $5 to participate and become year-long members of the Boys & Girls Club, where they receive lunch and a snack. The early breakfast gives working parents piece of mind, she said.
"Parents know their kids are being cared for," she said.
Redbank resident Jim MacDonald brings six children to the program every day.
"A parent can get everything done in the day," MacDonald said. "It's the cheapest program I have ever seen in my life."
MacDonald's nephew, Dylan LaDeau, 13, said he enjoys getting a good breakfast in the morning and spending the afternoon at the Boys & Girls Club playing pool, video games and kickball.
"It beats sitting at home all day," LaDeau said.
While programming at the Boys & Girls Club is open to all South Portland kids, it is mostly used by east end residents, who can walk to the facility. Transportation for low-income residents is the biggest obstacle to offering the program to kids from the west end.
Boys & Girls Club Program Director Jen Pierce said having more kids involved in the summer programs have added to the richness of the experience.
"We've never really had the opportunity to work with students on the other end of town," Pierce said. "This wouldn't be possible without the school bus."
The cost of breakfast is being paid for by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and transportation is being provided by the South Portland School Department.
"I think it's a great opportunity to give kids a healthy start to their day and engage them in activities throughout the day to keep them actively involved," Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin said.
The collaboration has helped break down barriers between agencies like CPPC, Department of Health and Human Services and the South Portland Police Department, too.
Officer Linda Barker said the working relationship improves the department's ability to intervene in unhealthy situations that may not call for criminal action.
Also, having a steady presence in the community is paying dividends.
"People are a little more comfortable seeing us in the neighborhoods," Barker said.
The summer program will continue until Aug. 27. Lipsman would not only like to continue the program next summer, but wants to find a way to expand the program to provide lunch for west-end youth who do not utilize the Boys & Girls Club.
"Unless something happens, we'd love to do it again," she said.
Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or firstname.lastname@example.org