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Hell's Kitchen After-School Program Threatened By Proposed Budget Cuts

By Mathew Katz | June 18, 2012 1:15pm | Updated on June 18, 2012 3:14pm
The Police Athletic League's Duncan Center serves more than 100 kids in its after-school program.
The Police Athletic League's Duncan Center serves more than 100 kids in its after-school program.
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Duncan PAL

HELL'S KITCHEN — For more than 100 kids in Hell's Kitchen, the Police Athletic League's Duncan Center, on West 52nd Street, has long been the only place to go after school.

But cuts proposed by the mayor's office in its upcoming budget would forced the only PAL center in Hell's Kitchen to eliminate after-school and summer camp programs that many of the neighborhood's working parents rely on, advocates said.

The location currently serves about 125 kindergarten through sixth-graders from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., offering activities ranging from academic to recreational and cultural, said Luis Tapia, the center's director.

"Come September, we will not have that," he said.

The cuts would also reduce an after-school program for teens from five days a week to just three.

The proposed cuts, part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's expected 2013 executive budget, would take $170 million from after-school and child care programs, leaving nearly 50,000 students without those programs across the city.

The budget is not yet set in stone — it will be finalized June 30 — giving parents hope that they can stave off cuts to the Hell's Kitchen center, which spends roughly $400,000 a year on the two programs.

"They want to close the PAL, but it's for the children," said parent Nivea Sabello at a recent Community Board 4 meeting, hoping to raise awareness of the proposed cuts.

"The Duncan PAL has served us for years. Without it, we don't know what we're going to do."

Founded in 1914, the Police Athletic League in a nonprofit agency that provides children in high-risk neighborhoods with programs designed to help them grow and become productive members of society.

According to Tapia, parents that send their kids to his center's after-school programs often work until 5 p.m. or later and can't otherwise afford after-school care. Many come from P.S. 111 and Sacred Heart of Jesus School, which are just blocks away.

"This is the bulk of our programs that will be gone," he said. "For these parents, they just see that they need security for their children, and they won't have that."

Tapia said he hasn't started any fundraising campaigns that would recoup the needed money, but has been keeping a close eye on the city's Department of Youth and Community Development, hoping to find grants that he can apply for.

"I'm just looking to sustain the programs," he said. "The goal is to find enough funding to run for six months and go from there."

If the budget cuts do go through at the end of the month, the center may be forced into fundraising overdrive.

But experts said even that might not be enough.

"These cuts are so big, with the numbers we're talking about, no fundraising drive is going to make up for the systematic disinvestment of these kinds of programs," said Katherine Eckstein, a member of the Campaign for Children, a coalition of advocacy groups created in response to the cuts that includes the Police Athletic League.

Beyond that, Eckstein said, the cuts would nullify the organization's original mission of giving kids in low-income and underserved areas a place to go after school so they avoid trouble.

"If we take away the programs that support them during those hours, we're all scared of what that means to them and the communities they live in," she said.

The Department of Youth and Community Development, which adminsters city funds for after-school programs, did not respond to requests for comment.

"The mayor has expanded after-school programming to the largest levels in city history, but we can't afford everything we want to fund," said Marc LaVorgna, a spokesman for the Mayor's office.

"We are negotiating a final budget with the City Council now, and the after-school budgets are a part of those discussions."

For now, the center continues to operate as it has. But after June 30, if the cuts are adopted, that's likely to change.

"Really, after that, if it all goes through," Tapia said, "I'm just going to have to push the big red button."