NEAR WEST SIDE — Ask Debra Kelly why she went out of her way to create an additional kids program at her childcare center and at first she’ll tell you it’s because, at her age, the kids keep her in shape.
But ask her again and she’ll tell you another reason.
“I think it’s an honor for children to want to be around you. I mean, I’m 53 years old and every day, they come through the door, ‘Where’s Ms. Kelly?’ I just think that’s such an honor,” she said.
Marcy Newberry is a Near West Side childcare center for low-income students. The 130-year-old organization has four centers around the city and provides preschool and after-school care for children up to age 13.
But after age 13, the children are on their own.
“If they’re not a part of something, they’re gonna be a part of what’s going on out on the streets,” said Kelly, who’s worked at Newberry for 24 years.
So in April, Kelly, who also runs the children’s choir and the Newberry 13 girls program, came up with the “Middle School Kids” program as a way to keep the older students coming back to what many consider their second home.
Every weekday from 3-6 p.m., Kelly and the students catch up like old friends would. They play cards and riveting games of Connect-4. They walk outside together and have long conversations about nature. They dance and sing.
After 6 p.m., Kelly usually drives home four or five of the kids who have no other way of getting there.
“I make a lesson out of something every day. Every day they’re learning something,” she said.
Before 14-year-old Diamond Sullivan started coming to the Middle School kids program, she had started getting into fights with several girls who live near the center.
“But Ms. Kelly, she started talking to me. She told me to come and since then me and the rest of those girls been friends and stuff. I haven’t had a fight in two years since I came to Newberry,” she said.
The program lacks funding; parents rotate to provide an after-school snack for all the kids, but other than that, it’s currently Kelly’s time each week that gives the older kids a place they can safely come together. And, once Kelly resumes her full-time duties with the choir in the fall, keeping the program up will be a balancing act with extra money to run it.
Kelly knows what an after-school program can mean to a child. She virtually grew up at the now-closed Taylor Youth Center on the city’s Near North Side.
“I could have been out on the streets, but I wasn’t,” she said. “I had someone to receive me and to give me what I’m giving to these kids.”