HARLEM — Janai Harris, 18, doubts she would be on her way to study English at Gettysburg College this fall if it weren't for the support she found at the Children's Aid Society's East Harlem Community Center.
Harris, who was named "Youth of the Year" at the center, said the six years of homework help, mentoring and the job the center eventually helped her land were invaluable.
Without the safe haven — one of hundreds threatened by Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to slash funding for child care programs — she'd have been lost, Harris said.
"I would probably be like half the other kids on my block and just standing around," Harris told more than 300 parents and children gathered Wednesday to protest the cuts.
"This center is the reason I'm able to stand here as a young woman and attend college today.… I always had a place here and no one denied me anything."
The mayor's executive budget, if adopted, would result in the loss of 200 after-school programs serving more than 47,000 elementary and middle school students and the elimination of 8,200 early-childhood learning spots. A recent report by Public Advocate Bill de Blasio put the pricetag of the cuts at $175 million, but the mayor's office has said it's closer to $72 million.
Dave Giordano, director of the East Harlem Community Center, said he would lose after-school slots for the 230 kids he currently has registered.
"My biggest concern is that I never say 'No.' And now I'm going to have to start saying no to kids," Giordano said. He said he may be forced to start charging parents a fee next year.
"Parents don't have the money. I have many parent who make $8 or $9 per hour who don't get raises. How much can they afford from their checks?" he added.
East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito said the cuts would devastate her district, which includes the South Bronx. Thirteen of the 19 after-school programs in District 8 would be lost along with 250 child care slots.
"If you whittle away at these programs, you whittle away at the middle class of this city," said Mark-Viverito, who sponsored the town hall-style rally.
A survey of 4,000 parents by the Campaign for Children, a coalition of youth service providers opposed to the cuts, found that 50 percent of parents using city-funded child care and 36 percent who use after-school programs said they would have to quit their jobs if Bloomberg's cuts are approved by the City Council.
Sixteen percent of parents who use after-school programs that serve elementary and middle-school students ages 5 to 13, said they would leave their children home alone.
Katherine Eckstein, director of public policy for The Children's Aid Society, which is part of the Campaign for Children, said 43,000 early childhood spots have been lost since 2009.
"It doesn't make sense for a city that had the right idea to invest in early childhood education and after-school programs that prepare and help children with school to make these cuts," said Eckstein.
"We need leaders who will take a stand on this issue."
The mayor has until June 30 to finalize the budget with the City Council.
Lewis Zuchman, executive director of SCAN NY — and one of the original 1961 Freedom Riders — said the proposed cuts would only lead to an increase in gang violence and unemployment. He compared the yearly battle against program cuts to the efforts to bring civil rights to African Americans in the Deep South.
"It's insulting and shortsighted," he said. "We've been getting cut for years now."
Barbara Spratt said two of her grandchildren, including one she has custody of, participate in East Harlem after-school and daycare programs. The family counseling and tutoring offered there are invaluable.
Spratt said her daughter, who is set to begin a job as a 911 operator, would be devastated by the cuts because she relies on the child care programs to enable her to work.
"A lot of kids in gangs don't have the support that is provided at these after-school programs," said Spratt, who said she'd have to take her grandchild out of the neighborhood to find an alternative after-school program if the one at the East Harlem Community Center is cut.
"The cuts are going to affect children in a negative way."