By Caryn Maconi on April 30, 2011

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At the Family Learning Center in Boulder, Colorado, no family is left behind.

This community program, located off of Valmont Road on 34th Street in Boulder, is located adjacent to a low-income housing neighborhood called San Juan del Centro. The center primarily serves San Juan’s residents.

The 501(c)(3) tax-exempt, private not-for-profit organization was launched in 1981 by community organizer and current executive director Brenda Lyle, originally as an early childhood program enrolling just 43 preschool children.

Thirty years later, with the help of parents, volunteers, staff members, and other concerned community members, the center now provides services for all ages, totaling over 2,000 children and families a year. Far from just a preschool program, the “FLC” has grown into a charitable organization serving members of the entire community.

The center offers preschool classes and year-round, full-time childcare for young children of working parents. Elementary and middle schoolers attend an after-school program offered every weekday during the school year, and starting in June, these services evolve into a summer program. During the summer, children build on the lessons they learned during their previous school year.

According to the FLC’s website, “The summer affords us time to introduce children to their community through participation in educational field trips, sports, art, community service and guest presentations.”

In addition, the FLC offers academic mentorship, SAT prep classes, and tutoring to high school students. Through the center, technical assistance and job enhancement opportunities are made available to San Juan residents, and community members are granted use of the FLC’s space for family gatherings and celebrations.

On a wider community scale, the Family Learning Center provides space, vans, and resources to organizations such as the Boulder AIDS project, the Latino Parent Program, and the Boulder Public Library multicultural reading program whenever possible.

Because most of the families served are Hispanic and many speak Spanish as their first language, FLC volunteers speak English during their programs to afford both children and adults valuable language practice.

Furthermore, the Family Learning Center has expanded its membership beyond San Juan del Centro. Because of its low cost and community atmosphere, the center draws families from across Boulder and even as far as Lafayette, Louisville, and Niwot.

“[My kids] love coming here, which makes me feel good about leaving them here,” said Maria Silva, Lafayette resident and mother of two boys in the elementary after-school program.

When current after-school program co-director Eric Schmidt started working with the FLC nine years ago, it was just to fill in for a friend as a volunteer one day a week. As he realized his passion for working with kids, he increased his hours to five afternoons a week, and three years later, he took the co-director position.

“I fell in love with the sense of community,”  Schmidt said. “Everyone was really connected and looking out for each other, but I also saw a need and wanted to help out.”

Since he took the position, Schmidt has never taken a day off. What’s more, he doesn’t feel like he needs a break.

“Typically if I can move, I’ll be okay,” Schmidt said. “When the kids are here, it’s easy to relax because it’s not about me anymore.”

Even on holiday breaks when the FLC is technically closed, Eric often hosts activities such as rollerskating and art workshops for the kids that would be too time-consuming for an ordinary after-school day.

“Kids typically come in at the beginning of the day excited about something they learned in school, and they want to explore it more,” Schmidt said. “Being engaged in art classes, gardening, and other experiential activities has a better effect on the kids than homework assignments.”

Schmidt’s commitment to the children does not go unnoticed.

“He helps people with their homework and he worries about other people instead of worrying about himself,” said Jason, a fifth grader who has been attending the FLC for three years.

If Schmidt is ever stressed out, the children never seem to notice.

“He’s awesome, he’s nice,” said Adolfo, another fifth grader in his fourth year at FLC. “He’s playful, I think, and he’s always in a good mood.”

Eric hopes to set a good example for the kids through his dedication and kindness, and he said he teaches them about respect whenever he gets the chance.

“Being a positive, productive citizen, I try to touch on that a lot,” Schmidt said. “[I want them to] develop social skills and assume a sense of responsibility for the community and for others.”

Schmidt also maintains a strong relationship with the FLC parents, and they recognize the positive effect he has on their children.

“He’s very patient and shows that he cares about each of the kids,” Silva said. “He knows everybody’s name, which is amazing, and he really seems to identify with each of the kids and match them up well with interns or reading tutors.”

Because the FLC is not-for-profit, Schmidt charges only $25 to register a child in the after-school program. He also asks for a monthly donation of whatever a family can afford, but no one is ever turned away for lack of funds. Many of the adults of San Juan del Centro work in custodial or hospitality jobs in Boulder and rely on the Family Learning Center’s open arms for affordable childcare.

“The Family Learning Center is an inclusive community, where children and families… from all walks of life are welcomed,” the FLC’s website says. “Many of our families live in subsidized housing communities in Boulder and Broomfield Counties, and depend on a variety of support services to augment low wages.”

Families that cannot pay the registration fee are encouraged but not required to volunteer, bring snacks, or offer other services. Even children who start attending without having been enrolled are welcomed into the center. Recently, Schmidt has been tutoring and caring for two girls who walked into the FLC several weeks ago and whose parents he has never met.

“Often the kids who show up who aren’t enrolled are the ones who need it most,” Schmidt said.

During the summer program, which costs only $75 for six weeks, children participate in low-cost activities such as gardening, hiking, playing sports, and doing community service. Schmidt said the fee goes mainly toward the two most exciting days of the season: field trips to Water World and Elitch Gardens.

“[The $75 fee] ensures that parents value the program if they invest into it,” Schmidt said, even though most summer camps cost at least that much just for one week.

With so many kids and such limited funds, the Family Learning Center relies heavily on volunteer support. Over 200 volunteers, many of them students from the University of Colorado and Boulder High School, provide mentorship and individual tutoring to the FLC’s children.

Often, though, the children learn best from each other. Because so many of them live in the same neighborhood or attend the same school, they form a close-knit community in which sharing ideas seems to come naturally. Schmidt said he tries to encourage that team-like atmosphere as much as possible.

“Because they see each other here and at school, they learn to work together to solve problems and interact in a more positive way,” Schmidt said. “The good thing, though, is that this isn’t school, so you can learn to step away from your friends when you need to.”

Fifth-grader Adolfo said he likes the choice between working with others and studying alone that the FLC grants him.

“Some places are quiet, some are loud– it’s your choice,” Adolfo said. “I usually go to the computer room and do my homework there.”

Since many of the children don’t have computers at home, this resource is one of which many children take advantage. Fifth-grader Jason said he plays a game called “Pac-Man Math” to work on his multiplication skills.

“It gives you something like six times seven, and you have to eat the right one,” Jason said.

There are not enough computers for every child, though, so crowds of children huddled around one screen is a common sight. Schmidt said the growing number of FLC attendees is a challenge he faces every day.

“It’s something we’ve been dealing with more and more, and part of it is me not wanting to turn anyone away,” Schmidt said. “We want academic and social success, but we also want everyone to have… a fun, safe, nurturing environment. It’s always a constant struggle.”

Despite Schmidt’s commitment, FLC parents also notice where the program is lacking.

“He does wonderfully with what he’s got,” Silva said. “But I think if he had more resources, this program would be really, really good. They could expand on the activities.”

Schmidt hopes that the funding he does receive from tuition, donations, grants, and fundraisers will be enough to accomplish his central goal: happiness and hope for the children he serves.

“I think that a lot of the kids here don’t have a strong sense of personal identity,” Schmidt said. “I want them to have that confidence to go into new situations, whether it’s college or just taking risks in the community.”

With the Family Learning Center’s help, those kids seem to be on track for a better life. According to a brochure put out by the center, 100% of FLC seniors graduated from their respective high schools last year, and 95% of those students were accepted into college. Through the preschool program, 100% of children (over 100 total) made a 50% gain in literacy skills throughout the year.

In addition, the FLC provided school supplies to over 500 children and contributed over $60,000 worth of food, clothing, and household items to its families.

“I don’t like to see the fact that parents are marginalized working in kitchens or hotels, and as a result the kids are marginalized in this neighborhood,” Schmidt said. “Most of the parents do want better for their kids. I just want them to have the choice to be able to do what they want.”

The Family Learning Center may not look like much, but for many of Boulder’s struggling families, it truly is a miracle on 34th Street.

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