Hardwick, News

Afterschool Program Looks to Expand

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Enrichment Coordinator Talisa Zayas helps WonderKids participants Ty Billings
and Sophia Rich craft their walking sticks.

by Virginia Lapierre, Community Journalist

HARDWICK – Forward. Two. Three. Four. Back. Two. Three. Four.

The sound of children counting and feet stepping in rhythm could be heard coming from the Hardwick Elementary Gym this past Tuesday afternoon. It is the sound of the children in the WonderKids Afterschool Program, run by Rural Arts Collaborative (RAC). They are practicing the steps to a folk-style circle movement (dance) that accompanies a song they have been learning. This song and movement will be part of their Friends and Family Festival which will mark the end of the fall session of the afterschool program on December 21.

Movement and song are just two parts of the day for the children in the afterschool program; they also enjoy an afternoon snack, outdoor exploration, a little bit of downtime to unwind from the day, and plenty of art and creative activities.

Today’s program in Hardwick has the children hiking through the woods near the ball field using walking sticks they have been crafting.

“The kids were enthusiastic about working with raw material (branches),” explained Talisa Zayas, the enrichment coordinator for the Hardwick site. “The excitement they had, as a branch transformed into a walking stick with simple tools and patience, only heightened as we discussed going on a hike with our new creations. They were so proud of how they turned out. One student loved the project so much, they began making another walking stick for a friend who wasn’t present for the program that day.”

Down the road at Wolcott Elementary, the importance of the afterschool program is clear as the children sit around the table sharing their afternoon snack. While they eat, children take turns sharing about their Rose (favorite thing from today), Bud (something they are working on), and Thorn (something that is hard for them right now).

Many children shared that their “rose” was that they could attend the afterschool program again after not having had that opportunity during the last school year.

After snack, the children went outside and worked in pairs to tie-dye cotton scarves. Beth Meachem, the enrichment coordinator in Craftsbury and Wolcott explained the process. “First, the children worked together to fold the scarves in half and then to twist them tightly. Rubber bands were then added to keep the dye from bleeding in. Children chose two colors of dye and dabbed the colors onto the twisted scarves. Finally, the scarves were hung up to dry.”

Not only was this project a way for children to use colors and imagination, it helped them practice teamwork and communication, all while being outside in nature.

Over in Craftsbury, the scene is similar. With the program theme for fall being Wild: Wild outdoors, Wild animals, and Wild colors, the children have many opportunities to immerse themselves in their imaginations during their afternoons in the program.

Today, children run around the Common, playing team-building, pumpkin-themed games in a celebration of fall.

“We did a pumpkin race, where a group of four kids would hold a pumpkin between them, only using one hand each to hold up the pumpkin, and try to run faster than the other group,” says Ryan Roessler, one of the support staff at our Craftsbury site. “After that, they tried again, this time, only using one finger each to support the pumpkin. In the final round, children could use their whole hands again, but this time, they could only use one leg at a time, hopping across the whole width of the common.”

After games, the children were able to paint pumpkins that they could take home with them.

The WonderKids program, which started providing afterschool programming last fall in Craftsbury, expanded to sites at Hardwick Elementary and Wolcott Elementary for the 2023-2024 school year.

“It is well known that consistent participation in high-quality afterschool programs promotes positive social growth, intrinsic motivation, and a higher sense of self-worth among our youth, and can also have positive effects on school performance and attendance,” says Sarah Mutrux, RAC executive director. “WonderKids uses the academic topics introduced in the classroom as a starting point for enrichment in a welcoming, fun environment. Movement, nutrition, and creative exploration using natural materials are foundations of this program. Many families in Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union rely on this enrichment program to fill the time between school and home.”

Vermont Afterschool, a statewide nonprofit dedicated to ensuring all children can benefit from programs like these, states that for every child enrolled in a program there is one more waiting to get in. “We know that the demand for our program is greater than our capacity,” Mutrux says. A successful program is both enriching and safe, and our ability to serve everyone depends on finding consistent, reliable staff to be there for the children every day after school. Staffing remains our biggest challenge in launching this program.”

Between all three sites, the WonderKids program enrolled 87 children for the fall session, that runs from October 10-December 21 on Mondays and Tuesdays in Wolcott, and on Mondays through Thursdays in Hardwick and in Craftsbury in collaboration with Sterling College. Due to staffing shortages, not all children have been able to attend all the days that they wanted, but each child was accepted for at least one day of programming.

As the WonderKids program looks to expand to serve more children in their winter session, they are still looking to hire more staff so that they can accommodate all interested children.

For questions or to work in the afterschool program, contact Virginia Lapierre at [email protected]

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