Editorial: Recreation Worcester ups its game

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A safe, experience-rich and incident-free summer is a goal for all of us, and is especially important for our young people.

Recreation Worcester knows this, and this year has been beefing up its offerings to city children.

June 26-Recreation WorcesterAfter a spring in which it introduced comprehensive after-school programming for students in Grades 3 to 12, Recreation Worcester has lined up a big summer for children ages 7 to 13.

It all gets going tomorrow.

The drop-in, city-run program is being held at 10 parks around Worcester. Children ages 7 to 13 are eligible, there is no cost, and officials offer plenty of flexibility. Kids — who must be registered — can participate for as many days as they like, and need not stick to one program site for the summer.

The eight-week program runs Mondays through Fridays, June 27 to Aug. 19, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Children may attend for all or part of a day, and will be offered both lunch and dinner this year. Last summer, the program was six weeks and did not offer dinner.

The parks hosting Recreation Worcester this summer are Beaver Brook Park, Burncoat Playground, East Park, Grant Square Park, Greenwood Park, Kendrick Field, Lake Park, Logan Field, University Park and Vernon Hill Park.

Parents, sign them up. The benefits in terms of fun, exercise, camaraderie, learning, leadership, safety, teamwork — even crime prevention — make the city’s youth outreach program relevant to all, and something to celebrate and support.

At an upbeat press conference last week at Vernon Hill, crowded with young city hires in blue shirts — many of whom were participants themselves in Worcester’s summer programs not too long ago — the city manager, mayor and others spoke about the strong community involvement that’s been helping pull off successful summers for youth in recent years.

Recreation isn’t rocket science, but a lot goes on behind the scenes to make it work — and make it worth it.

“There’s zero cost to taxpayers,” City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. said. “We’re doing all of this with amazing partners.”

For instance, UMass Memorial Health Care, the lead sponsor, this year donated $100,000; $25,000 came from new contributor Blue Cross Blue Shield; the College of the Holy Cross gave $10,000, and the list continues.

Worcester Public Schools is providing transportation and other assistance. Hanover Insurance employees individually bought supplies, Augustus said, providing “hundreds of new items” such as balls, bats, nets and other needs.

This large-scale effort pays off. It helps parents, pleases kids and has immeasurable lasting effects. An emphasis this summer is helping children keep their school skills up to speed through literacy and other activities, officials said.

Compared with last summer, recreation enrollments had tripled as of last Tuesday, June 21, Augustus said at the press conference.

Some of the local community partners have been reliably dedicated to the city’s summer recreation efforts for several years now, while the city has been evolving its playbook for serving youth. The program started out as Wheels to Water in 2009. Two years ago it became Recreation Worcester and has shifted focus from mostly swimming to a more comprehensive slate of activities and a longer day.

In January, with the announcement that Recreation Worcester would become year-round with the addition of after-school programming, the city significantly stepped up its service to families. We commend it, and urge officials and leaders to continue to find ways to get our young people productively engaged and building the skills, connections and sense of community that go along with the fun.

For example, last summer’s four-week opening of basketball courts at Worcester East Middle School and Claremont Academy is the kind of simple idea that makes sense and makes a difference. That was a collaboration by the Worcester Police Department, Worcester Public Schools, Worcester Youth Center and Straight Ahead Ministries.

The importance of giving at-risk youth something to do can’t be overestimated. A 20-year-old outreach worker from Straight Ahead Ministries said to the Sun last year about the basketball program: “This is [a] place that we can come together, no violence, nobody’s here with bad intentions. We’re all here to have a good time and to build relationships with one another that we didn’t have before.”

Let’s keep these ideas bouncing around, and different kinds of youth programs rolling and growing.

Jobs for older teens and young adults is another important piece of a productive summer. Officials last week announced an initiative, Job1, aimed at helping Central Massachusetts businesses find young people to hire, and at helping prepare young people from throughout the area for those posts. It’s a collaboration between the city, the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, Worcester Community Action Council, Central Massachusetts Workforce Investment Board, the Central Massachusetts Youth Jobs Coalition and several other organizations.

This is the time of year everyone looks forward to, especially schoolkids. In a few short weeks, we’ll all be looking back, wondering where the time has gone, and hoping we’ve spent it well.

For the city’s 7-to-13-year-olds, and the 89 high school and college-age hires to help supervise them, Recreation Worcester’s rollout tomorrow is an excellent place to start.

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