Fifteen years ago, three people started a program for Kennett students that was so unique, it was featured in an article in Time magazine.
Today, that program, After The Bell, serves 304 Kennett Middle students offering 153 activities provided by more than 200 community volunteers.
Not only does the program help keep kids out of trouble, it enriches them by providing homework assistance, help with learning the English language, and a chance at building new friendships.
And yes, it’s fun.
The two-hour program provides for a full hour for the recreation of choice. There’s tennis, yoga, martial arts, ping pong, scrapbooking and arts and crafts, among dozens of activities. And students can even learn how to cook, play chess, knit or even decorate cakes. Cooking, in fact, is taught by Alfred Jackson, head chef at the Kennett Square Inn.
“Middle school is the perfect time to engage kids,” said Kathy Hrenko, executive director of After The Bell. “They are just forming peer groups that will stay with them for life. It’s a time in their life when people try to engage kids in negative behaviors like drugs and alcohol. It’s hard when they go down a negative pathway. After The Bell gives them a strong, positive pathway early in their life.”
And the program has really gained strength in the past few years. The program has 69 community collaborations, including new partnerships with Kennett Square Golf and Country Club, Longwood Performing Arts, the American Contract Bridge League, Chester County Department of Emergency Services, Kids First Swim School and the Land Conservancy of Southern Chester County.
After The Bell has especially helped Latino children learn the English language. Many volunteer mentors are bi-lingual. And the students involved in the program are on the fast track to success.
“We have seen children who are part of this program become more engaged in their academic endeavors,” said Barry Tomasetti, superintendent of Kennett Consolidated School District. “And as we study this success, we surmise that those associated with After The Bell and our school care deeply about them and their paths toward future success.”
Ed Zunino, Kennett Square police chief, said After The Bell keeps students engaged and out of trouble.
“I can say without a doubt that the After The Bell program has been very positive in our community instilling confidence and morale among our youth,” he said.
A recent survey found that nearly 94 percent found a new skill or hobby, 99 percent see the program as a place of respect, and 92 percent feel After The Bell makes them better students by learning life skills such as respect, manners, responsibility, discipline and strategies to deal with bullies.
After The Bell consists of three six-week sessions. Typically, students in the program get involved in local charitable events. For example, arts and crafts students worked with volunteers Jeanne Searer and Lety Vence from Casa Guanajuato this past fall. The students created artwork that was incorporated into the first annual Dia de los Muertos.
After The Bell students in photo class exhibited their work at the Eco Boutique during December and January. And students in the program’s cooking class helped at the recent Kennett Chocolate Lovers Festival, which benefitted the United Way of Southern Chester County.
This is the same mission, Hrenko said, that founders Marshall Newton, Denise Wood and John Wood based their program on – volunteerism and community spirit. The program is similar to the Garage Youth Center in Kennett Square, but quite different. After The Bell is quite structured, with attendance taken and a class agenda. It is only for middle school students. The Garage has an open door policy and is frequented by high school students.
And the students in After The Bell often get involved in local service projects that aid groups like the Kennett Food Cupboard, Relay for Life, HIS Mission and Aid for Friends.
Funding for After the Bell comes from local grants and letter-writing campaigns. All activities are run by community volunteers, and even the organization’s board of directors is volunteer. Last year, 247 local volunteers helped with After the Bell.
After The Bell’s big fundraising event is fast approaching. It will be held March 26 at the Mendenhall Inn from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tickets are $60 per person and includes a buffet dinner, dessert bar, cash bar, dancing and a silent auction . Entertainment will be provided by “Lights Out,” a tribute band to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. For tickets, www.afterthebell.org. For a preview of “Lights Out,” check out http://youtube/lafmdZjvS30.
Kennett After School Association board President Rudy Karkosak is encouraging people to “put on your dancing shoes and join the fun while supporting a worthwhile program that provides such a vital service to the youth of the Kennett community.”
Hrenko said it’s important for the community to support After the Bell, as it is provided to students and taxpayers at no cost.
“After the Bell has such a positive reputation, and this reflects well on the Kennett school district,” she said.