BELLOWS FALLS -- Fifteen years ago, Meeting Waters YMCA opened its doors on Atkinson Street to children to participate in the Y-ASPIRE after-school program. Since then, the program has expanded to serve families in Walpole, N.H., Brattleboro, Dummerston and Saxtons River. Starting in the fall, Putney Central School will become the newest location for the program.
"Without ASPIRE, I don't know if I could find daycare," said Brianne Dunleavy, of Bellows Falls, whose 9-year-old son has attended the program since kindergarten. "He's not old enough to go home alone. He needs to be somewhere where he feels safe and I feel safe having him. He needs this as much as his family needs it."
But following a Meeting Waters board meeting earlier this week, the future of Y ASPIRE in Bellows Falls is in doubt.
"At this point, we will no longer offer the program after the end of the school year," said Steve Fortier, executive director of Meeting Waters. He said the reason is the building -- deeded to the organization in 1971 -- that houses both the administrative offices and the after-school program is no longer suitable for either.
"We've been doing the necessary repairs to our facility but we are now at a point where it will need a massive capital investment," said Fortier. Instead of spending the money on addressing the building's many problems, he said, it makes more sense to step away from the building and find new offices for the administration. But that leaves the ASPIRE program homeless.
"With the closing of the building, we are hoping Central Elementary would have us back," he said. When ASPIRE first started in Bellows Falls, it was located in the elementary school, but was moved to the Y's building several years later. Now, the Bellows Falls program is the only one not located in a school facility.
Vernon Temple, the chairman of the board of Meeting Waters YMCA said the program would come at no cost to the school district, and the Y has already had conversations with teachers that are willing to help out.
"All we are asking for is space. It's a perfect match."
Meeting Waters' board met with the Rockingham School Board this week and presented the situation and its hope that the ASPIRE program can find space in the school.
"In the past few days, the announcement that there may not be a program next school year has generated a discussion aimed at finding a solution to keeping Y ASPIRE in Bellows Falls," said Temple.
Windham Northeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Chris Kibbe told Temple that he and Central Elementary School Principal Keith Nemlich will attend the next Y board meeting to explore the options.
School Board Chairman Jim "Jiggs" McAuliffe said there are a number of factors to consider before agreeing to let the program back into the building.
"People from the outside might look at the school and think it's a big building," said McAuliffe. "But in this day and age, the school is used for a lot of things."
Kibbe said there are a number of other factors that also need to be taken into consideration.
"We would have people who are not employed by the school district inside the building and then there are all the other functions such as special ed meetings. The principal has to manage the school and now the Y is talking about adding another level of management."
Kibbe also said that despite the fact the program is in schools around the county, there are some studies that indicate a school is not the best place for an after-school program.
"The studies show the programs are better attended when they are in a different setting."
Nonetheless, said Kibbe, he is committed to working with Meeting Waters to find a solution to the predicament.
And McAuliffe said he and the other board members recognize how important the Y ASPIRE program is to the families of the 22 children who participate.
"We need to do everything we can to see that this program continues and continues to grow in Bellows Falls. This is something we are going to work out. We'll continue to work on it and come up with the right answer. We can't afford to see this program leave Bellows Falls."
"We will figure this out," said Kibbe.
Y-ASPIRE, which stands for After-School Program for Inspiration, Recreation and Education, runs not only after school on typical school days but also for full days during all school vacations and on most holidays, as well as for half days on all in-service days. Y-ASPIRE is a licensed, school-age child care program which ensures high standards of safety, proper staff training, and an age-appropriate curriculum. This licensing also allows parents to access the Child Care Subsidy Program which provides financial support to parents who are working or in job training programs.
The program offers homework help, literacy development, physical activity, nutritious snacks, arts, and group projects organized around a monthly theme.
"This a solution for families with latch-key children," said Temple. "And if the community wants this at the school, they can bring their concerns to the Rockingham School Board and to the principal."
While the Y-ASPIRE program in Bellows Falls will cease at the end of this school year, the Y's summer camp program will offer activities until the new school year starts.
"If we don't find a place, it's very likely the Y will no longer have an ASPIRE program in Bellows Falls," said Temple.
For more information about Y-ASPIRE, call Bellows Falls at 802-463-4769; Brattleboro at 802-246-1036; or Springfield at 802-885-8131; or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bob Audette can be reached at email@example.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.