Every weekday afternoon, there are 60 kids running around the halls of the Hunting Park Christian Academy. Rowdy relay races and dodge ball faceoffs in the basement produce enough screams and cheers to echo up the stairs and out the plain white door of the unassuming after school haven.
To find the Ayuda Community Center’s after school program, you just have to follow the noise.
The Community Center’s office and headquarters is a block down North Marshall Street, but its after- school program still operates out of the Academy’s classrooms. Both the elementary school and Community Center were started by the Spirit and Truth Fellowship Church, which is part of the same building as the school.
The church started the Ayuda Community Center in 1991 and incorporated it in 1992 so it could be a community based and owned organization. It moved into Hunting Park in 1997 with the church and set up shop down the block.
The Community Center has grown from a small church initiative into an organization that provides the North Philadelphia community with a variety of services.
In addition to the after school program, the Ayuda Community Center launched the Orange Korner Arts House, which has since moved into its own building.
The center also offers free legal consultations for local residents, runs a Boy Scout troop for Hunting Park and operates a summer camp for neighborhood kids. In the future, the Community Center is hoping to open a bicycle repair shop so kids can come fix their own bikes.
The Ayuda Community Center’s Out of School Time program takes children from kindergarten to fifth grade and splits them into three age-based groups to make them more manageable for the seven part-time employees of the program.
Half the kids are from the Hunting Park Christian Academy and just stay after classes end, but the 27 students from the nearby Cayuga Elementary School have to be picked up and brought to the program.
“It’s hard for parents. Our after school program is some place for their kids to go, at least until sixth grade,” said Cynthia Whitley, Out of School Time Site Director for the Ayuda Community Center.
Whitley has been with the OST program for five and a half years. She started as an assistant teacher and counselor for the Community Center’s summer camp and took over for the previous after school program administrator a couple of years ago.
“Most families with kids here we’ve been working with for a number of years. They had older siblings that came to the after school program, or cousins and family friends. We get kids mainly through word of mouth,” she said.
“We used to have students through eighth grade,” said Whitley, but when the city took over after school programs the Community Center had to reorganize and cut back to just kindergarten through fifth grade.
Today, there are no established community-based after-school programs for any students after fifth grade.
“What our organization is trying to do is build a junior high after-school program,” said Whitley.
At the moment, that program consists of two volunteer college students from Temple University and Messiah College coming in a couple days during the week to tutor any middle school students that show up.
“Some days its seven to eight kids, some days it’s just two,” said Whitley.
For the kindergarten through fifth graders, activities are a little more organized.
In addition to helping the students finish their homework and wearing them out with team sports, the staff members teach the kids how to improve society through certain social issues.
“When the city started going into the after school programs, they made project based learning a requirement for the programs,” said Whitley.
The grant for the OST program was funneled through the city’s Department of Human Services to the Public Health Management Corporation, which facilitates the grants for after school programs around Philadelphia and ordered the incorporation of project based learning.
Through the projects, the students of Hunting Park are learning about discrimination, child rights around the world and animal cruelty.
“We’re pretty free in what we do,” said Whitley. Her focus has always been literacy, but the projects go beyond just reading about children in China.
“Vaughn Hall [one of the part time employees] is putting on a play with the kids about discrimination Friday night. Last week, community members with different ethnic backgrounds came in to talk to the kids about their experiences,” she said.
The younger students from kindergarten and first grade talked about child rights in Asia and South America.
“We’re working with the Humane Society to teach them about animal cruelty. A lot of the kids come from a house or know someone who has pitbulls bred to fight,” said Whitley.
Dog fighting is a big problem in Hunting Park, but Whitley and the staff member have been working with the community to educate students about why dog fighting is wrong with firsthand experience.
“We took the kids to the SPCA on Erie Avenue and showed them some of the dogs that have been dropped off,” said Whitley.
The animal cruelty project has also included possible plans for the future for the kids.
“They’ve started to look at careers that work with animals like pet groomers, zookeepers, and dog trainers to see if they might want to do that,” said Whitley.
With such a mixture between the playful and serious, the Ayuda Community Center’s after school program provides a well-rounded experience for the 60 kids who call those classrooms home for a couple hours each weekday.