Students attending the newly opened Boys and Girls Club at Oak Park Elementary used a common phrase Wednesday to describe their experiences.
“It’s fun,” Oak Park kindergarten student Amaiee Sales said as she gathered with other students around a table in the learning center.
“A lot of fun,” added fifth grade student Johnleyka Colon while accessing her homework assignment on a Chromebook computer.
A plan Decatur Youth Services Director Bruce Jones and Oak Park Elementary Principal Teddi Jackson discussed for more than a year is now giving students in Southeast Decatur an after-school place to go for recreation, STEM education and life lessons they learn by interacting with their peers.
After the Beech Street Southeast Boys and Girls Club near the East Acres apartment complex closed in January 2018, Jones and Jackson said, they knew some students in the southeast part of the city would need a place to go after school, especially students who might be at home for a period of time with no adult supervision because their parents work until 5.
“Bruce called me about whether space would be available in Oak Park and I checked with the superintendent,” Jackson said.
Superintendent Michael Douglas said there was a need, so he agreed to let the Boys and Girls Club of North Alabama use space at Oak Park, on the corner of Eighth Street Southeast and 16th Avenue.
“They are serving our students, and we needed a place in the southeast,” he said.
The number of students at the club has increased from about 25 to 37 in three weeks, and club director Maurice Ayers expects the number to grow to as many as 100 when football season ends and more students need a place to go after school.
“We’re ready and excited to have them,” said Ayers, a former Decatur student who was an in-school suspension aide four years at Oak Park Elementary before taking over as club director.
He said the club has students from several schools and is looking at starting a teen center because some high school students have requested to enroll.
Ayers, a 1993 Decatur High graduate, said he knows the value of Boys and Girls Clubs because he attended the Sterrs Boys and Girls Club in Northwest Decatur when he was an elementary and middle school student.
“I made a lot of friends and attending the club instilled in me a lot of the principles of life, which made me a more responsible person,” he said.
The facility at Oak Park, which is in the basement of the gym, has a learning center, game room and STEM lab. Students also have access to the upstairs gymnasium.
Jones, who offers some of the same services at DYS headquarters at the Aquadome Recreation Center in Southwest Decatur, said he reached out to Jackson about putting the club at Oak Park because “there are some students that need a safe place to go after school while their parents are working.”
He said Decatur has a lot of latchkey kids.
“With the club, they will be provided tutoring, help with homework and an opportunity to learn life skills with positive interaction with other kids,” Jones said.
Sales laughs when she comes to the center and cries when she has to leave.
“I don’t want to leave because it’s so much fun here,” she said.
Elveree Matthews, a fifth grade student, said she would likely be home watching television if the club wasn’t available to her.
“I get to come here and do homework with my classmates,” she said.
Martez Lee, who started attending the club this week, said the center gives him internet access for his computer and an opportunity to discuss classwork with his friends.
“We talk and help each other,” he said.
Jackson said some Oak Park teachers volunteer in the club and students with school-issued Chromebooks are able to do homework because of the internet access. She said there is a need for at least two Chromebooks for K-3 students who do not have school-issued computers.
Ayers said there’s also a need for a pool table in the game room.
Jackson said she is surprised at how fast the program has grown. The club started in one gym dressing room, but immediately renovated another and started using it. She said a third dressing room — which is being used for storage — will likely be needed soon.
“There was a need and we’re happy to make this available to our students,” Jackson said.