With chants of “save our centers” reverberating across the steps of Queens Borough Hall, hundreds of young students, representing various after-school programs and encouraged by their mentors and elected officials, made their voices heard at a rally on April 24 to protest proposed budget cuts that would leave many of them without a home away from home.
“How would you feel if your second home was gone?” 10-year-old Jessica Calvo asked the crowd as she stepped up to the podium.
Referring to the Queens Community House Beacon after-school program she attends at JHS 190 in Forest Hills, one of two threatened in the borough, Calvo continued, “Beacon helps with educational, personal and homework problems. Last year, I went to summer Beacon. It was one of the best times of my life. If you really care about after school you would try to save it. You know, we have the power to accomplish anything if we try our hardest.”
Natalie Herrera, 11, who attends the same program, echoed the sentiments when she said, “The Beacon is my second home. We love these programs and we need to fight not only for ourselves but also for future generations to come. Please save our after-school and early child-care programs across the city.”
Glynis Harrison, program director at the Samuel Field Y, the second borough after-school program facing extinction, said, “Under the mayor’s latest budget, we’re losing the capacity to serve families.”
The mayor’s executive budget plan, which includes child care and after-school programs, is scheduled to be released early next month. His preliminary budget proposal, which included cuts totaling $130 million from the programs, was released in January.
According to the Campaign for Children, a partnership of The Emergency Coalition to Save Child Care and the NYC Youth Alliance, consisting of over 150 child-care and after-school advocacy and provider organizations, the proposed cut of $64.6 million from child care would put 8,000 children at risk, while a cut of $66.2 million from after-school programs would affect more than 41,000 children.
Under the cuts, the two Queens programs, which serve a combined 2,400 area residents, would be forced to close on July 1, the start of the next fiscal year.
Multiple contingents of youngsters arrived early for the rally. One formed a circle and performed for the crowd. Another immediately held their protest signs aloft.
“Children, you are our future,” Borough President Helen Marshall told them. “You are going to be the leaders of the world. If you have programs after school, it’s a big help. We want these centers to stay open.
“I’m a teacher because I love children," said Marshall, who taught school before entering elective office. "We have to understand how important they are to us.”
A number of City Council members, who must negotiate a final budget with the mayor before the end of June, added their voices to the rally.
Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) called the proposed cuts “simply wrong," saying, "The city has to step up and do its fair share. The mayor’s office has to stop the rhetoric. We’re supporting the Campaign for Children.”
Queens' newest City Council member, Donovan Richards (D-Laurelton), directly addressed Mayor Bloomberg, who was not in attendance, when he said, “You need to put our children first, not last. These children could teach you something about homework.”
Councilman Peter Vallone (D-Astoria) suggested that after-school programs are an important part of a child’s education. “Today, they’re learning about advocacy and civic responsibility,” he said. Also addressing the absent mayor, he added, “They need less homework and more after-school programs.”
Among the other elected officials on hand, Councilman Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens) indicated that the programs allow parents of young children to hold down jobs. Keeping their services alive is “imperative,” he said, for the parents as well as the children.
Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) said she had hoped “we would not be here this year," adding, "My Beacon program was threatened last year and it’s being threatened again this year. No! No! No!”
And Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) said, “If we love our children, we should fund programs for children. We need to do more for after school, not less.”
Shakima Bell, of the PS 50 After-School Plus program in Jamaica, said it serves some 200 youngsters daily. The cuts would be “absolutely devastating" Bell said. "The program is very valuable. Kids would lose their social life. Counselors would lose their jobs.”
Tiffany Wright, after-school director at the Sports & Arts In Schools Foundation at PS/IS 116, also in Jamaica, which she said serves around 130 children daily, said, “I believe a lot of our kids would be left with nothing to do in the streets. So many programs have already been cut. We tap into drama and sports. Without after-school programs, a lot of our children won’t know they have that potential.”
Fliers distributed at the rally asked supporters to call 311 and their City Council members to express their concerns.
In addition to the two Beacon programs in danger of elimination, the city plans to cut $101,000 from the DMH Adolescent After-School Program, operated by the Child Center of New York, which works with the Parsons Beacon Program at JHS 168 in Flushing [see separate story].