Extension's AmeriCorps program is an after-school success story
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Extension's AmeriCorps program
is an after-school success story

Students attending the AmeriCorps program enjoyed activities ranging from tie dyeing T-shirts (above) to making soap, candles and ice cream to learning about electricity and magnetism (below).  (Photos by Herman Lankford)

For many kids, school spring break means long days at home alone watching television. Thanks to a new AmeriCorps program, two groups of Mecklenburg County youngsters had a more memorable experience this year.

The youth participated in spring break camps at the Mallard Creek Recreation Center and the Naomi Drenan Recreation Center in Charlotte. They were taught by AmeriCorps members, who this year have led after-school programs for children in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Children in the program learn science concepts through Cooperative Extension’s 4-H science curriculum. They also have participated in gardening and beautification projects, with help from Extension Master Gardeners and horticulture agents.

AmeriCorps came to Mecklenburg in September 2001. In conjunction with Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation, the program has provided leadership for after-school programs at five sites in Charlotte. The sites were selected in areas with “severe deficiencies” in after-school opportunities.

Four of the five after-school centers created outdoor gardens, and the fifth developed a raised bed for plants. The children in the programs started seeds indoors to transplant into their gardens, said Fran Cook, AmeriCorps program director with Cooperative Extension in Mecklenburg County.

“The main purpose is to teach children about gardening and where our food comes from. We are hopeful that the gardens will be a pilot project to engage communities in larger gardens,” Cook said.

Cook says the first year for AmeriCorps has been a success. This year, the program served about 350 youth, and the spring break camp was an opportunity to attract more students to the after-school program.

On the last day of spring break camp, older students at the Drenan center performed electricity experiments, creating simple motors and powering them with batteries. Around the room were posters, depicting the many areas of science the after-school kids have explored this year — the solar system, Newton’s law, meteorology, sound, air pressure and environment.

Though the kids have learned a lot, they said the camp is more fun than school: “We do less work here. We’re here longer (than at school), but we have more fun.”

Amira, 8, said she liked making a bulb light up by connecting it to a battery and switch. If she hadn’t been at camp this week, she would have been home watching television, she said.

The AmeriCorps members who lead the program are a diverse group. Cook says many of them are from Charlotte, some from the neighborhoods served by the program. They receive a small stipend for their service, and if they complete a year’s full-time service, they receive an additional $4,725 education award.

Seneca Toms, 21, is a college student studying horticulture. A former Mecklenburg 4-H’er who was “kicked out” when he turned 19, Toms jumped at the opportunity to be part of a program that involved 4-H curriculum.

“I always wanted to work in 4-H,” Toms said. “To be a 4-H agent would be the greatest job in the world.”

Quacy Moore is finishing work on his high school diploma at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte this year. He learned of the AmeriCorps opportunity while working with the park and rec office.

He has teamed up with Courtney Cromer, a recent college grad, to lead an after-school group at the Drenan center. They call their program “QC,” the initials of their first names.

Supervising a gym full of children, Cromer, 23, said her year with AmeriCorps has been “awesome. It’s been a challenging, but good year.”

—Natalie Hampton


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