COLUMBIA — Student artwork decorates the walls of the J.W. “Blind” Boone Community Center. Moving from one table to another, about 40 elementary and middle school kids practice reading, writing, math and science. Later they will sing songs, dance or maybe go outside for a walk.
These are the children of the Columbia Housing Authority’s Moving Ahead program. Moving Ahead has provided free after-school child care to low-income families in the housing authority and surrounding area for seven years, but lately it has been forced to cut back in order to continue.
The program will lose almost half its funding when two of its grants expire at the end of September. Administrators are trying to find new ways to fund the program so that it's not always reliant on grants. In the meantime, they are worried.
“The problem that we’re facing right now is that we have had to cut back on our service,” said Becky Markt, director of resident services for the Columbia Housing Authority.
Program director Carroll Zu-Bolton said it costs about $140,000 a year to run Moving Ahead.
The authority runs public housing for low-income families in four locations: Bear Creek on Elleta Boulevard; Oak Towers on North Garth Avenue; Paquin Towers on Paquin Street; and on the west side of North Providence Road, where the Moving Ahead Program is housed.
“We have made commitments to work with the staff that we currently have and we have a big waiting list of (children) who want to get in here, but we want to keep growing and we want to keep offering a program that we feel is superior to most after-school programs,” Markt said.
Zu-Bolton said the program is important because it provides tutoring services, after-school care and personal attention to students. This is something that many of the families served by the program could not otherwise afford, she said.
Zu-Bolton said Moving Ahead is different from other after-school programs in the sense that it is academically focused and does not charge for its services.
Granny’s House, another after-school program, is faith-based and church-funded, director Pam Ingram said. The Boys and Girls Club has the same academic intensity as Moving Ahead, but it charges $20 per child for a semester. The Intersection provides similar, free services, but it isn’t within walking distance of children in the housing authority and doesn’t provide transportation.
“Most of these places you have to pay money to actually go to these programs and they don’t give you too much help with paying those fees that they have,” said Angela Mason, whose son attends Moving Ahead.
For Mason, the academic aspect of Moving Ahead is important to keep her son, Tracy Edwards, 11, focused in school.
“The core of our program is providing after-school assistance,” Zu-Bolton said. “It’s so important for children to get off on the right foot. A lot of times children can’t rely on their parents to help them with their homework for various reasons, like work. They rely on us to help the children with their homework.”
Mason and Theresa Churchill, chairwoman of Moving Ahead’s parents association, said Moving Ahead is also important because it gives their children a safe place to go after school. Churchill said, her daughter, Celeste Hodges, 10, was having problems with violence — being hit and kicked by other kids in the neighborhood.
“It would really hurt my heart just because I know how involved it’s gotten her,” Churchill said. “Then she’d be right back to where we started off, either having to fight her way to the playground or sit at home all the time and not really get to get outside and play. I’d really hate to see it go because it really does help.”
The two grants being lost are a grant from the Missouri Department of Public Safety for about $33,000 and a grant from the Youth Community Coalition/Missouri Strategic Prevention Framework for $35,000 a year for three years, for which they had received a one-year extension.
Markt said changes in management have made it difficult for the program to become self-sustaining and helped cause the financial problem. Markt started working for the housing authority in 2009 and was the third person to fill that position in three years.
“Maybe it could have been prevented had we taken a long-range look at it from the beginning, but many times that happens with programs," Markt said. "They start off with a grant and they don’t make that leap into the future.”
Several steps have been taken to save money, Zu-Bolton said. The program was cut back from five days a week to four this summer and plans to continue at four days a week for the fall. The program will also have to close for the last two weeks of July and the first two weeks of August.
Currently, staff members use vans to pick up kids from eight schools and drop many of them off at home at the end of the day. Zu-Bolton said the program will switch to a walking school bus for kids at West Boulevard, Benton and Grant elementary schools, which are close to the community center on Providence Road. Staff will continue to drive home the children who already use the transport system, but no new kids will be able to receive transportation.
Zu-Bolton said this could deter some new families from joining. If transportation is cut altogether, more families, such as Churchill’s, might have to quit the program because they don’t have a car.
In previous years, the program has taken the families on a big educational trip; last year, they went to Atlanta. This year, they were supposed to go to Washington, D.C., but the trip has been canceled.
The Columbia Housing Authority also stopped replacing staff as they leave and started relying on volunteers to fill gaps. They currently have eight full-time staff members. Three who left have not been replaced.
Markt said because staff had not made a long-term financial plan earlier, program administrators are forced to look for funding, but a strategy is in the works to prevent this from happening again.
She said the program has been approved for the PedNet Promising Strategies Grant of $15,000 a year for three years.
Administrators also hope to receive additional money from the PedNet Coalition, which would provide a one-time donation of $90,000.
In September, they will find out whether they will get a federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration of $72,000 per year for three years.
Markt said the program is making moves to get away from relying on grants. She, Zu-Bolton and Columbia Housing Authority CEO Phil Steinhaus are taking strategic fundraising classes through the Missouri Foundation for Health.
Steinhaus said administrators would like to discuss a partnership with the United Way as a source for additional funding.
Parents wanted a way to get involved, too. Churchill said they have a car wash and bake sale planned for July 30 and 31 and a banquet planned for sometime in September. There is also talk of a benefit concert at the community center and a “Columbia’s Got Talent” competition.
If these grants and fundraisers don’t come through, there may be more cuts made, but Zu-Bolton said everything is going to be done to keep it cost-free.
“Most of our parents are single parents, and they really can’t afford it. Several live on under $10,000 a year,” she said. “I don’t have the heart to ask them for money.”
“I think that there would be a lot of kids who wouldn’t be able to come,” Churchill said. “I know my daughter would not be able to be involved anymore because we’re on very limited income now.”
Zu-Bolton said that the parents don’t want to see the program go away, and she is seeking help to keep it around.
“People know we’re here and doing good work but don’t necessarily know we’re struggling,” Zu-Bolton said. “I’ve been working here in the trenches not really focusing on fundraising, but before I would see the program fall apart, I would do whatever I had to to save it.”