It’s a little after 3 p.m. on a hot and sunny Thursday in June and the Kids Safe Zone is packed. Little boys crowd along the row of video games that line one wall of the room where the program is housed, their eyes transfixed. In another corner, a group of girls dance along to the computerized figures on Just Dance, a video game where the goal is to keep up with the choreography on screen. There are other groups of kids too – some reading, some watching a cartoon on television, and others playing with toys.
“It’s usually organized chaos,” said program coordinator Tonette McFadden
The Kids Safe Zone is the brainchild of Ericka Alston, the director of PR, Marketing & Business Development for The Penn North Community Resource Center. The community center had already been working for over 20 years to meet the needs of adults in the Sandtown-Winchester community. Why, Alston asked, didn’t they start working to help the kids there as well?
“When the riots happened and the cameras were rolling, we had an international platform. Every person that was asked what’s the problem in Sandtown-Winchester, why are people rioting – every single person said that there are no recreation centers, there are no after school programs. The kids have nowhere to go but on the streets,” Alston said.
“I looked at my executive director and said, ‘Why can’t we be the rec?’ I said that and he handed me a key to 1,000 square feet of a vacant laundromat. Didn’t know he was going to do it that fast!”
The Kids Safe Zone opened on June 1. The program operates seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The program has just one employee, McFadden, who makes sure the place is clean and the kids are busy and fed while they are there. There are also community members, some parents and grandparents, who volunteer their time.
“It’s exhausting but it’s also fulfilling, McFadden said. “Some parents are active…but there are some cases where the children, you know they’re being neglected. Once they start coming here, they don’t want to leave.”
Alston said that the program operates 100 percent on donations. Every toy, every chair, every snack the children get has been given to the program. Alston envisions a time where the program can hire more than one employee. She would also like for the center to eventually be able to keep its doors open 24 hours a day, for children who don’t have adults at home late at night to look after them. Because of this, the group has started a page on the crowdfunding website GoFundMe.com. The link to donate to the Kids Safe Zone is http://www.gofundme.com/wh9a8dw