The classrooms of Bloomington elementary schools are empty. It is summer -- no more cafeteria food, no more desks and an unlimited recess every day. At least this is how most school-aged kids view summer.
But according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2006 17.5 percent of children aged 18 and under in Bloomington lived in poverty. School is a safe haven for their families, a place where their children receive food and a comfortable, supervised setting during the day.
"I don't know if there's a lot of affordable summer options out there," said Rebecca Linehan, unit director of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Bloomington. "There are at least scholarship options in each summer program I'm aware of."
The Boys and Girls Club and Monroe County United Ministries (MCUM) are two community nonprofits that have affordable summer program options. But space is limited. MCUM, for example, has 50 kids on a waitlist this summer.
As the economy worsens, and gas and food prices rise, many families have hard times keeping up with bills. During the summer, childcare expenses can escalate to the point where parents choose between taking their kids to daycare and leaving them at home.
"The end of the school year's coming, and parents ask, 'What am I going to do with my kid day in and day out over the summer?'" MCUM's Development Coordinator Rebecca Stanze said. "For me it's really distressing that a 6 or 7 year old, if they didn't have an affordable program, would be left at home during the day. A 6 or 7 year old isn't going to do anything productive at home on their own. They're going to watch television all day."
MCUM, located on West 14th Court near the Crestmont public housing complex, offers a sliding-fee scale with income verification. While the set fee is $180 per child, the average family only pays $45. Cost is as low as $35, depending on income.
The Boys and Girls Club, with locations on South Lincoln Street and in Crestmont, has three summer options, each affordable in their own way.
Camp Rock on Lake Lemon, which offers several outdoor activities, has a varying weekly payment between $80 to $120 per week, with partial scholarships available. The Summer Drop-in Program offered at the main Lincoln Street facility is included in the annual membership fee of $20.
The Club’s third program, also a Summer Drop-In, is located at Crestmont, where the annual membership fee is $5.
Payment plans are available to anyone who cannot pay in full at both programs.
"No child is ever turned away if payment cannot be made," Linehan wrote in an e-mail.
Finding an affordable program for many parents may not be as easy as it seems. Stanze said that MCUM's summer camp program develops a waitlist months before the program begins.
Linehan, on the other hand, said that as long as parents act early, they can typically receive a spot in a Boys and Girls Club program.
"We tend to see the problem where parents are still calling, looking for camp vacancy, even though our camp is now getting into its sixth week," she said. "You really have to think about what you'll do with your child for the summer at the beginning of the year."
According to Linehan, most parents do not take advantage of financial-aid opportunities because of two factors: one, laziness, or two, they do not realize how hard it could be to keep their kids at home.
"I just think that they don't realize in the beginning that having their children at home everyday in the summer with them is actually going to be maybe a little stressful for them and not very enriching for the child," she said. "Sometimes it's not even just being lazy, it's not realizing that that's how it's going to be."
Once enrolled in either MCUM or the Boys and Girls Club, kids have a variety of enrichment and physical activities, as well as nourishment that they most likely wouldn't receive if they spent their summer days at home alone.
"What we're trying to do is keep them active, healthy and engaged in the summer," Stanze said. "We do a lot of enrichment programs, field trips, learning about the community."
Stanze described a new type of program offered this year called "Healthy Minds, Healthy Bodies." The Trinity Episcopal Church outreach commission gave MCUM a grant to fund the program, which teaches kids fun and new ways to deal with stress.
"We're doing a dance program with a sort of hip hop dance routine that the kids are learning over a course of three weeks, and then they're going to do three weeks of tai-chi and three weeks of yoga," Stanze explained. "We're hoping that first of all they're being introduced to new things, and then they can do those activities as physical action at home, giving them things to do that can relax and calm them down when in stressful situations."
The kids also go to the Mills Pool almost every day and do a series of other indoor and outdoor activities to keep them active and enriched. This also benefits the school system.
"We hear a lot about it from the education system, that it takes kids a long time to get back into school mode because they have to wake up early again after sleeping in and lazing around all summer," Stanze said. "We're hoping that we're helping to give them a lot of growth over the summer so that they're ready to go at the beginning of the school year."
Boys and Girls Club provides a series of activities and learning experiences within each summer program option. Camp Rock includes the typical summer camp activities like fishing, hiking, and arts and crafts. The Summer Drop-in Programs include education and career development, character and leadership development, health and life skills, sports, fitness and arts.
"These programs provide a safe place for kids to be when their parents or guardians are not home and the kids themselves are not in school," Linehan explained. "They also provide activities for kids to participate in when they may otherwise be idle, and hope and opportunity that may not be available in a home or neighborhood environment."
Statistics show that a large portion of those in poverty are single parents, particularly single mothers. According to the 2007 Monroe Country SCAN report, 23.1 percent of Bloomington citizens living in poverty are single mothers, and 38.3 percent of this population have children aged 5 and under.
The Boys and Girls Club asks every new member to fill out a confidential form that will help put together statistics of annual income, who the kids live with and other information to give supporters and club administrators a better idea of who they are serving.
This summer, 53 percent of the kids at Boys and Girls Club live with female heads of household. This number is for everyone, not just low-income families, but this is still the majority demographic being served from any income level.
Stanze said anyone can enroll in the MCUM summer program, but low-income families are priority.
"The programs are available on the sliding fee scale, so it doesn't require a huge percentage of their salary to go to childcare," she said. "It's an incentive for parents to stay employed and access benefits and to get work experience and raises. It's so they aren't putting their entire salary toward childcare."
Audree Notoras can be reached at .