Saturday, April 07, 2001

Service for children caught in crunch

After-school program could lose funding

By Kevin Aldridge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A successful after-school program for underprivileged children is among services for the needy that are bracing for funding cuts if Hamilton County trims an expected $25 million from its budget in June.

        The Three Square Music Foundation has served about 24,000 youngsters in the past eight years at several locations in Cincinnati. Recently it and 29 other agencies were advised that their contracts with Hamilton County's Department of Human Services may be allowed to expire June 30.

        About 90 percent of Three Square's $1 million annual budget comes from human services, the agency responsible for helping the poor with such services as job-training, counseling and welfare.

[photo] Ashlee Benneson (left), Natalie Bean and Mercedes Bell dance during the Three Square after-school program at Windsor School in Walnut Hills.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
| ZOOM |
        The loss could be devastating to Three Square, said Kimberly Southerland, founder, executive director and CEO of the nonprofit group.

        “If we lost county funding, we would have to become a fee-based program, meaning parents of these children would be responsible for paying for the services,” she said. “It also means that we probably won't be able to provide services for the underprivileged children we currently serve, and they are the ones who need it most.”

        Most of Three Square's clients are poor children ages 8 through 12. Each weekday, from 4 p.m to 6 p.m., the foundation's eight locations host about 240 children.

        The group also provides tutors and a place to do homework. The children work daily on a computer-education program that discourages drug use while encouraging good citizenship and life skills.

        Afterward, children participate in choirs, drill teams, dance, mime, art, drama and other activities. Three Square feeds them a hot meal twice weekly.

        But fewer state dollars and increased spending on welfare reforms have put the county in a dilemma, said Mindy Good, a spokeswoman for the county's department of human services.

        “Over the last four years, due to welfare reform, we have received a large amount of temporary funding that has helped programs such as Three Square,” Ms. Good said.

        “But we knew that windfall wasn't going to last forever. I think now you are starting to see our funding return to normal.”

        The budget-slashing could also mean huge cuts to training programs that help people get jobs or advance from entry-level jobs. Transportation payments for the working poor, programs aimed at preventing high-risk people from going onto welfare rolls, counseling services for children and mental health programs also are endan gered.

        Agencies dealing with child-development and victims of domestic violence could also take hits.

        Three Square's Ms. Southerland said she is hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.

        In a couple of weeks Three Square will launch a “dollar campaign” urging 1 million Cincinnati-area residents to each donate a dollar to keep the program alive. The name Three Square comes from a now-defunct business operated by a co-founder of the program in Atlanta. Over the past eight years, Three Square has grown rapidly.

        Last year it had after-school programs at only two locations twice a week. This year it quadrupled its locations and is open five days a week, and sometimes on Saturdays, too.

        Its computer program — called the Hartley Drug Education Series — teaches children the causes and effects of illegal drug use as well as how to balance a checkbook, find a job or cast a vote. It also teaches children what to do when they are stopped by police.

        In addition to its computer component, Three Square hosts "in-school suspension” programs, in which schools send suspended pupils for instruction on proficiency tests, behavior modification and stress management.

        The idea, Ms. Southerland said, is “to change and mold their behavior and attitudes” before it is too late and the students drop out of school.

        The Free Store and the foundation also host Kids Cafe, providing hot dinner on Mondays and Wednesdays.

        Three Square's activities attract more girls than boys.

        “We do not have a lot of programs for males,” Ms. Southerland said.

        “We do have a drum corps. It's really difficult to get males to participate in the program. It's hard to hold their attention.”

        The foundation employs 15 full-time workers, including Ms. Southerland, 10 part-time workers and about 20 volunteers. Like most youth efforts, it could use more volunteers, she said.

        And, like most youth efforts, it could use more funding. The program in the past has been funded through a variety of temporary contracts with the city of Cincinnati, the Kentucky Juvenile Justice Department and the Greater Cincinnati Foundation.

        Some of the children at Windsor Elementary School in Walnut Hills know that funding is uncertain.

        Monique Smith, 11, of Fulton Avenue, said Three Square has shown her ways to say “No” to drugs and to live a healthy, safe life.

        “We do a lot of fun things, ... but we also learn stuff that will help us be responsible when we grow up,” Monique said.

        “I'd be really sad and really bored if (Three Square) went away.”

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