Youth programs feed both body and mind

Ayden Chase, left, and Ben Galbert, right, eat lunch during a summer camp at the Sumter Youth Center in Wildwood. The Sumter County School District is providing food to youth centers in Wildwood and Bushnell.

Without balanced meals and opportunities to learn, children’s brains struggle to function properly. Sumter County School District’s Food Services and the Sumter Youth Center want to do something to help.

The district and youth center are working together to make sure school-age children’s brains stay sharp with good nutrition, and educational computer programs and reading all summer. The youth centers in both Wildwood and Bushnell get free breakfasts and lunches from the school district to serve five days a week.

“We’re a nonprofit, so this is a blessing to everyone,” youth center Executive Director Della Boushley said.

Because so many families of students qualify as low income, the school district participates in the community eligibility provision of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program and its Summer Food Service Program, Student Services Director W. Eric Suber said.

The school district has provided free meals to the youth center for several years. In addition, it distributes grab-and-go breakfast and lunch bags at four schools, including Wildwood Elementary, and will add a fifth school, Bushnell Elementary, in July, he said. In addition, school buses deliver meals from those schools to 11 other sites for any child 18 or younger.

The school district served 26,174 meals in the first two full weeks of June, Suber said.

Four days a week, the youth center picks up grab-and-go bags with a breakfast and lunch for children in its bags.

“There’s lots of food,” Boushley said. “They can save some for a snack (later) or take some home.”

The meals meet federal school nutrition guidelines, including limits on sugar and sodium, Suber said. Each meal includes milk, a serving of fruit, a vegetable, a source of protein and a source of grains, he said.

For example, lunches may have a turkey-and-cheese sandwich, baby carrots, an apple and milk. Breakfast examples include an egg, turkey-and-cheese frittata with a biscuit, fruit and milk. Meals are delivered cold and can be reheated at home or the youth center, Suber said in an email.

The USDA reimburses the school district $2.16 for each breakfast and $3.76 for each lunch, he said.

Whether children like everything or not, “there’s enough food in that bag that they walk away with a bellyful,” Boushley said.

Food, Learning And Fun

At the youth center, the children seem to enjoy lunch.

For some, the food provided at the center is the only meal they get all day, Wildwood site director Jamie Kuhns said.

“We are in a low-income area, so nutrition is No. 1,” Kuhns said. A church donated 200 boxes of food to be distributed to the children’s families, she said.

Most children at the youth center are elementary school-aged, although programs are open to ages 5 to 17 years old, Boushley said. Revenue fell while the centers and the Sumter Youth Center Thrift Shop in Bushnell were closed for the coronavirus pandemic, so the center had to raise rates slightly for summer day camps to $50 a week, which Boushley said is still only about a third the cost of most other summer day camps.

And, the center keeps children busy having fun and using their brains with routines that don’t feel like school.

Throughout the day, they rotate in small groups among different activities every 40 minutes, she said.

“I like how they have places you can do stuff,” Alexa May, 10, an incoming fifth-grader, said. “I like the people. There’s a lot of things to do here.”

Alexa said she likes the computer lab, where they work on computer programs that Boushley said the school district recommended. Alexa said she also enjoys playing billiards, foosball and on the basketball courts.

A station for children to play with toy cars and trucks on a low table or rug with a roads design, arts and crafts and a reading program also are in the rotation, Boushley said. The reading program features different fun ways to read, including summer reading bingo, and children win prizes when they get bingo, she said.

Changes This Year

Summer enrollment is down this year, to about 40 in Wildwood and 80 in Bushnell, from 80 and 220 respectively last year, Boushley said.

The coronavirus has changed routines, too.

Staff is cleaning and disinfecting each area between each small group of children. Staff are taking temperatures three times a day of all staff members and volunteers, and they have reduced their use of volunteers. And, the center is not taking children on field trips as it did other summers.

“If this corona wasn’t here, we’d get to go roller-skating,” said Kevin Askin, 8, an incoming fourth-grader.

Kuhns said staff has looked for other new things to do instead.

“We were playing video games yesterday,” Kevin said.

To donate food or money to the Sumter Youth Center in Wildwood, call 352-330-0067.

Staff writer Dayna Straehley can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5408, or dayna.straehley@thevillagesmedia.com.