Supervisor Bill Wilkinson’s tentative 2012 budget proposes that funding for Project MOST remain at the 2011 level of $10,000. Project MOST a nonprofit service that provides after school enrichment activities for 300 local school children, had already been coping with a $241,000 drop in state funding.
According to executive director Tim Bryden, without an increase in town support, Project MOST will not have the financial resources to operate by September 2012.
Parents now contribute half the funds to run the program. New York State used to provide the other half. Bryden and Project MOST supporters are asking the Town of East Hampton and the East Hampton and Springs school districts to contribute 50 percent of the costs, which, according to Bryden, would amount to less than 1% of the East Hampton Town budget; approximately $2 per household.
“The future of any society depends on its ability to foster the health and well being of the next generation,” Bryden said. “When a community invests wisely in children and families, the next generation will give back wisely through a lifetime of responsible citizenship.”
Cuts in state funding have already taken a toll on the program. This fall, 25 children are on the waitlist at John M. Marshall Elementary Schoolin East Hampton while another, smaller group, has been waitlisted in Springs.
Observing a computer class, Bryden takes obvious pleasure in the sounds of the children’s voices, but grows serious speaking about the future of the program.
“Over ten years, we have achieved something that is very innovative and very futuristic,” he said, noting that school buildings would otherwise be empty during Project MOST hours from 3 to 6 p.m.
“The supervisor’s draft budget will mean that for low and moderate income children and parents, there will be inequity in accessing and affording after school learning. Too many school age children in East Hampton will be home alone after school, while more and more parent are at work.”
Lindsey Roman, a working mother whose son Kayden attends the program agrees. “Kayden has a place to be safe. So many kids have no place to go after school.” Roman, who occasionally translates Spanish documents as a means of giving back, said she would be devastated if Project MOST closed. “These are our kids. These are local children.”
“Project MOST works,” said Laura Menelaws, whose fourth grade son Callum is participating for the first time. Menelaws, a math teacher and mother of three, said, “I see what happens in other districts. A lot of kids find themselves in bad situations because they have nowhere to go.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by fifth graders gathered on the carpet before computer time. Of roughly 30 children, nearly half raised their hands to say that without Project MOST they would be home alone after school.
Project MOST is not only about affordability, Bryden said. It’s about logistics. Many parents would not be able to chauffeur children around or provide the range of activities we offer. In addition to an hour of supervised homework each day, children have an hour of enrichment activity and an hour of physical activity, from computers to art and storytelling, karate to swimming.
“Early experiences shape how the brain gets built,” Bryden says, stressing that Project MOST is far more than a babysitting service.
The pay it forward principle also applies to Project MOST’s “group leaders,” 40 high school and college age students employed to supervise participants. Group leaders attend staff meetings and 30 hours of child care training.
Kristie Ortman began working as a group leader during her junior year at East Hampton High School. She attended SUNY Geneseo and returned to work at Project MOST. “I always knew I wanted to work with children,” said Ortman, explaining how Project MOST has helped her, “but I didn’t know I wanted to teach.”
Diana Geppert, who began working at Project MOST as a senior in East Hampton High School has traveled to Mexico and India to work with children. “Project MOST helped me learn how to manage kids, how to connect with them and work with them on their level.”
As he looked in on a hokey-pokey-type game taking place in the gym, Bryden acknowledged that East Hampton taxpayers have many concerns but, he said, “This should be one of them.”
The public can weigh in on Wilkinson’s proposed budget at the public hearing on Nov. 10. The school budget will be prepared in March 2012.