Eureka Kids Program Links After-School and Community Action
A rainbow of backpacks decorate the wide sofa, neat rows of oranges are lined up on the kitchen table, and wafting through the open window are the sounds of children playing in the park. Stepping into the Eureka Kids building feels just like entering the home of a particularly large family, and director Barb Dunnam works hard to maintain that comfortable, relaxed atmosphere.
“We really are family here,” said Dunnam. “A lot of the kids see me as another mom, and we spend a lot of time together.
A Town with Special After-School Needs
While after-school programs are important to any town, they’re especially crucial to towns with a tourism-based economy, since parents often work long hours in hotels, restaurants and shops. In Eureka Springs, Arkansas, a historic Victorian-era destination with just over 2,000 residents, the service industry is the main source of local jobs, and most of those are seasonal.
“It's a totally different clientele,” said Dunnam, who has extensive experience with after-school programs across the country. Often, these programs serve low- to middle-income families, and the parents work in manufacturing or office jobs with set hours all year round. However, in Eureka Springs, it's common for workers to have two and three jobs through the season.
“These folks may do a shift at a hotel from six a.m. to four in the afternoon, then get one hour to change clothes, and run off to work a double shift in a restaurant. As for time, they have nothing,” she said. “And in the winter, they're driving at least an hour back and forth to larger metro areas like Rogers and Fayetteville, looking for anything to make ends meet.”
Nearly one-third of the town's population is under the age of 18, so when the area Boys & Girls Club shut down without warning in 2002, parents were frantic. A grassroots movement began for a homegrown after-school program to meet the specific needs of Eureka Springs families. On April 1, 2002 the Eureka Kids program set up shop in a spare room of the middle school.
“That first year, we were only open for two hours in the afternoon, but we served nearly 100 kids,” she said.
Growing Up to Fill a New Home
The program quickly outgrew its space, and found a new home in the bottom floor of a seldom-used city building on the grounds of historic Harmon Park. The building and the park were in disrepair; the organization leased the building from the Parks and Recreation Department for $1 per year, then parents renovated the building and students cleaned up the park's playground. Within another year, Eureka Kids took over the building's top floor as well, and now the program occupies the entire building.
“The teens never came when we were (located) at school, because it just wasn't cool to hang out with the little kids there,” said Dunnam. “But with this location, our teen attendance rate has jumped dramatically.”
In fact, Eureka Kids serves 500 children and teens each year in both after-school and summer programs, and has gone from providing homework assistance and arts and crafts activities to a complete range of family support services, such as medical referrals, G.E.D. education, and assistance with food and utility bills.
A Shoestring Operation
All these services come at a price. Eureka Kids squeaked by in 2004 on a shoestring budget of $26,000. There is a yearly participation fee of $20, but no child or teen is turned away if they can't pay.
Dunnam, the only paid employee, relies on a volunteer staff that ranges from five to ten people, depending on the time of year. And Dunnam herself admits that she has gone without a paycheck several times in order to pay utilities for the building, or to meet some other need for the program. Eureka Kids receives no funding from the city of Eureka Springs. Instead, Dunnam mostly relies on grants and private donations.
For example, the ConAgra Foods corporation has made a $20,000 grant to support the Kids Café program this year, through the company’s multi-million dollar Feeding Children Better initiative. The Kids Café serves breakfast, snack and dinner, and also sends food home to families that need it, along with care packages for the holidays. Dunnam started the food assistance program in response to increasing hardships faced by some local families. “In the wintertime, there’re no jobs,” said Dunham. “These people have to choose between paying the electric bill and feeding their kids.”
Each year, Dunnam and the staff serve more than 8,000 meals. Most of the food is donated, either by the area food bank or by individuals, and the program also partners with the Dept. of Agriculture.
Volunteers Make it Work
By far the most popular faces at the Kids Cafe are those of the Granny Grub Gang, senior citizen volunteers who donate dinner three times a week. These ladies—along with a few men—bring much more than homemade treats; they serve as mentors to the ever-growing group. One of the oldest volunteers is 91-year-old Margie Ridenour, known to all as The Brownie Granny.
“I make brownies every week and bring them in,” she said. “I just love spending time with the kids.”
In fact, most of the volunteers at Eureka Kids are senior citizens, since so many parents face the demands of seasonal employment. The program's teens also serve as mentors to the younger kids, helping them with homework or just being there to listen. The arrangement forms a secure support network, so no one feels left out or alone, and provides the kids with the confidence to take on other tasks within the community.
“Multi-generational mentoring is important because it gives the seniors an opportunity to feel successful,” said Dunnam. “They're great at story telling, they have so much life experience, and infinite patience.”
Kids Bring Back a Piece of Eureka’s History
One of the kids' main projects is the restoration of Harmon Park, once a vibrant community center in the late 1800s with nearly seven acres of gardens and trails. Over the course of the last two years, Eureka Kids have discovered three lost springs, a valuable find for the town which gained fame as a spa destination in the Victorian era, and was known as the “City That Water Built.” Over time, though, some of the dozens of cold mineral springs in Eureka were lost to development or were simply forgotten.
Restoration of Cardinal Spring is nearly complete after months of work removing rocks and debris, doing historical research to locate the spring on old maps, and having the spring tested by experts from the University of Arkansas.
A leader in the project was 13-year-old Allen Black, who even attended city meetings and persuaded officials to divert a proposed skate park to a different location and preserve the spring. “It was something I had to do,” said Black, who was also in favor of a new skate park. “I couldn't let them undo all the work we had done.”
The kids also plan to have the spring re-listed on current city maps as a historic site after they finish building a trail to the spring. Eureka Kids has received a $1,000 grant from the Department of Arkansas Heritage to restore the gardens in Harmon Park, and work on the other two springs is planned for the future.
Encouraging Community Engagement
As if all that isn’t enough, the Eureka Kids have also created the Keystone Club to promote teen leadership on community and government issues. The club proved its mettle by traveling to Little Rock and convincing their state senator, Randy Laverty, to amend a youth program funding bill to include $20,000 for Eureka Kids. After that success, the teens have been raising money for a mid-May trip to Washington DC. On May 17th, they’ll be at the Afterschool Alliance’s “Afterschool for All Challenge,” and the following day they’ll be on Capitol Hill talking to the Arkansas delegation about the importance of funding after-school programs.
They’ve also organized a blood drive and a clothing drive.
The Eureka Kids’ problem-solving approach is definitely inspired by Dunnam, who tries to overcome the many obstacles involved in running and nurturing the program with bold and creative solutions. When the school district decided students could no longer ride the school buses to the Eureka Kids building two years ago, Dunnam created the “Take A Hike Eureka” program, and coordinated daily chaperoned hikes for the 1.3 mile walk from the school to Eureka Kids. The idea won an award from the U.S. Dept. of Health for combating childhood obesity.
“When we lost the buses and started hiking, I thought we would lose kids from the program,” she said. “But they kept coming. They were really dedicated to what we do here.”
Fundraising: a Never-Ending Struggle
Like many such programs, while Eureka Kids is clearly meeting a community need, it has not yet found a stable source of support for its work. Even thinking big, as Dunnam tends to do, has yet to pay off.
When several fundraisers failed to garner either the community's attention or dollars, Dunnam listened to residents who wanted the town to attract more classic rock concerts. She made a call to the legendary band Jefferson Starship, who agreed to do a benefit concert on Earth Day this year. Dunnam skipped a mortgage payment on her own home, and other volunteers emptied their bank accounts to pay the band.
On the big day, only about 150 people turned out for the event, far short of the full house Dunnam had hoped for. In fact, Dunnam’s big gamble resulted in a net loss of $7,000. There is a small silver lining: Jefferson Starship fans nationwide heard about the concert on the band's website, and hundreds of dollars in private donations are coming in.
Still, Dunnam remains optimistic, and energetic, as she weighs new fundraising ideas.
“I wouldn't trade this for anything in the world,” she said. “I look at the need, and know we have so much further to go.”
Elizabeth Bartlett is a freelance writer based in Eureka Springs, Ark.