Editor's note: This is part of a special section on Columbia's kids. Read more here.
COLUMBIA — A banking system allows children to earn "Fun City Money" when they do a good job at the learning stations. At the end of the year, the children at Fun City Youth Academy can use the money they've earned to buy different things, such as toys, that have been purchased by the staff.
The Fun City Youth Academy is a non-profit organization with a mission to provide culturally enriched, academic, artistic, recreational and social curriculum to central city kids aged 5 to 18. The program works to close the achievement gap among low-income kids and help them reach their full potential. Fun City provides a safe environment where volunteered tutors mentor the kids in math, reading and history lessons that incorporate creativity and technology.
Fun City has a Saturday Academy program from noon to 4 p.m. during the school year held at the J.W. "Blind" Blind Boone Community Center and the Summer Academy for eight weeks at Frederick Douglass High School.
One hundred kids enroll in the summer program on average each year with enrollment reaching 150 in some years. Fun City has helped at least 4,200 kids since it started 42 years ago, Nia Imani, president of Fun City, said.
The activity provides incentives for the children to do good work and teaches math skills and the value of money, said Consuela Johnson, Fun City Youth Academy Saturday coordinator.
Johnson tries to be creative in the activities and lessons she plans that teach math, reading comprehension and African-American heritage.
"They love it," Johnson said of the computer program the academy uses to practice and test reading comprehension.
Johnson uses the website SETCLAE — Self Esteem Through Culture Leads to Academic Excellence — to teach cultural heritage. She then copies worksheets from math books that complement what students are learning in school.
Art and poetry were recently added to the activities for the Saturday Academy. Each student was told to write a poem that will be added to the poetry book at the end of the year, and Johnson said they're looking forward to the author signing event once the book is complete.
Fun City, a non-profit organization that has been in operation for 42 years, serves children in the central part of Columbia on Saturdays and during the summer. Forty-four kids were enrolled in the Saturday program this year and about 20 to 25 of them come regularly. There were 116 kids in the program last summer.
"When kids are idle they're more likely to make bad decisions," Johnson said. At Fun City, she said, "we keep their minds occupied."
Johnson has volunteered since September 2010 and has worked for the Fun City since May 2011; her family has been involved with the organization for generations.
Her involvement began when she met Nia Imani, the current president of Fun City, in 1992.
Imani moved away from home at age 20 with her 2-year-old son to go to college in Indianapolis where she helped start Black Life Academy to assist young people with academics and life skills.
When she returned to Columbia after college, she still wanted to do something that would help children and eventually connected with Fun City because it focused on some of the same aspects as the Black Life Academy.
"Kids have always been my motivator," Imani said.
Imani also opened a day care in Columbia and "clicked" with the children's parents. One of those parents was Consuela Johnson, a young mother of two boys who was enrolled in the evening program at Columbia College and worked during the day to support her family.
Johnson was having trouble finding day care for her boys, and decided to take a semester off from school to focus on them. She even had thoughts of dropping out for good.
That was when Imani's day care came into the picture, making it possible for Johnson to stay in school. When Johnson picked up her children after their first day, "they didn't want to leave." That's how Johnson knew it was a good match.
Her boys would come home from "Mama Nia's" saying they were leaders in the community. The boys also attended Fun City at this time and Johnson said she felt relieved that her children were "safe and encouraged."
When Johnson's boys got older, they volunteered at Fun City as well.
Johnson said they have grown up to become "strong, black men" who are "community-minded" — an outcome she credits to Imani.
"She was sort of like my mentor," Johnson said. "She makes you want to do things for your community."