Budget woes over, kids happy to play
City residents took to the podium at City Hall and sent e-mails in a bid to save one of the city's most prized recreational programs. And, according to department of parks and recreation department, it paid off.
Just months after facing elimination from the city's budget, the historic Summer Playgrounds Program is thriving, city officials said.
Enrollment in two of the playgrounds experienced modest gains, and held steady at a third, said Roelkey Myers, deputy director of parks and recreation. He said that only one program saw a sharp decline this year.
"It's been a great summer," Myers said. "I think the fact that [the program] was raised as a budget issue was the best thing that could have happened to it. Personally, I don't think that this program will ever be questioned again. People really showed that this is a great program, and that there is a need for it."
In addition to an anonymous donor writing a check for half the cost of the program, the mayor and Board of Aldermen lobbied to find funds in the city's tight fiscal 2010 budget to fully fund the $43,000 program.
Officials proposed to cut the program because of its low attendance and low revenue compared to day camps. The program, which runs from June to August, is staffed by summer employees; residents pay $20 for the entire summer to send children ages 6 to 14.
The playgrounds program is different from the summer day camps in that children and parents can choose not to attend every day, and a number of children attend only for special events. Other city day camps cost about $155 for city residents and are fully attended.
This year, the playgrounds program is being held at four city playgrounds: Amber Meadows Park, Monarch Ridge Park, Hill Street Park and Monocacy Village Park.
The usually lowest-attended program at Amber Meadows is seeing an increase of registered participants this year from last — 41 to 48; Monarch Ridge also saw an increase from 53 last year to 66 this summer; Monocacy Village has had a decline from 96 last year to 76 this year; and Hill Street Park experienced the sharpest decline from 72 last year, to 39 participants this year.
The uncertainty that surrounded the program this year may have contributed to some declines in registration, said recreation supervisor Cheryl Radcliffe. "When we didn't know what was going to happen, some parents made other plans, which is understandable," she said. "They were very excited that it was put back in the budget — everybody was."
For various reasons, including affordability and flexibility, parents praised the program Monday, as they picked their children up from the Hill Street Park site. It was just past 3 p.m., the program's daily end time, and about 10 campers were jumping rope and singing names of the camp's staff.
"My kids asked to be placed in the program," said Mariana Bacza, who had just registered her two children on Monday. "They're out of the house, they get exercise and it's convenient for me because they're exhausted when they get home."
Billy Thomas, whose daughter has been attending the program for three years, said that he continues to bring her back because it provides her with an opportunity to meet new friends. He said it was unthinkable that the program would ever be eliminated.
"A lot of kids here don't have anything else to do for the summer," Thomas said. "This is an opportunity for them to not be in front of the television, meet new friends and learn something. [Eliminating the program] would be a travesty. Many kids will be left on the street or left alone."
Just like parents, the program's counselors said they were upset to hear that the program and their long-loved jobs were in jeopardy. "I was devastated when I got the letter and it wasn't what I thought it was," said D.J. Whiten, 17, who used to attend the program, and began working as a counselor four years ago. "I went on a massive job search, couldn't find anything, and luckily another letter came."
Nine of 18 staff working at the camps were campers, according the department, a testament to the mission of the program to provide affordable summer fun for all ages.
E-mail Erica L. Green at email@example.com.
Campers in the Summer Playgrounds Program are planning a "Michael Jackson tribute" talent show at 12:30 p.m., Wednesday, at Baker Park. For more information, call the Department of Parks and Recreation at 301-600-1492.