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Gaining a new reputation

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet staff
Thursday July 26, 2001

YMCA isn’t just for excercise anymore 


When Shirley Richardson-Brower took over as executive director of the Berkeley YMCA South Branch four years ago, the building had more basketballs than books. 

“Its reputation was as a nice little Y for recreation,” Richardson-Brower said. 

Sweeping her arm over a room with bookshelves running the length of one wall, office-like cubicles aglow with Apple computers, and a group of kindergarteners huddled in front of a dry-erase board, sounding out the letters of the alphabet with aid of a college-aged volunteer, she said: 

“This was a weight room.” 

The transformation began back in 1997, when the South Branch YMCA convened a focus group to assess how well the facility was meeting the needs of the surrounding community. What they discovered was a large group of  

parents wondering if it would be possible to mix some academics into the traditional YMCA menu of recreational services.  

In response to the community’s “shift in focus,” the YMCA set out to institute afterschool and summer programs that would offer fun and games with strong emphasis on learning, Richardson-Brower said. 

Today, where once there were a couple dozen youth – mostly boys – pumping iron and shooting hoops, there are now more than 100 children from kindergarten all the way up to seventh grade, learning their ABCs, practicing reading and writing, conducting scientific experiments, playing instructional computer games among other activities. 

So many signed up for the center’s nine-week Summer Learning, Summer Fun program this summer that Richardson-Brower had to create a “wait list.”  

The program runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. five days a week and costs parents – most of whom are low-income – an average of only $25 a week. The fee is negotiable, and no one is turned away for inability to pay. 

During the program’s infancy, youth would sometimes come for a few weeks and disappear, Richardson-Brower said. But parents have developed an increasing loyalty to the program over the years, and most now stick it out for the full nine weeks. 

Parent Kathy Russell gave the program a try for the first time this summer, signing up her kindergarten-aged son, Alexander. Russell said she planned to let Alexander stay home and play during the summer but changed her mind when she heard about the program. At the South Branch YMCA, Russell said, her son manages the rare feat of having fun and learning at the same time. 

“I thought it was going to be a kind of fun day camp for him, but it’s really been an educational experience,” Russell said. “They’re not just hanging out.” 

Richardson-Brower attributes the program’s success, in part, to the practice of dividing the students into small groups, with a volunteer tutor serving as the leader of the group all summer long. Because the students are asked to take on academic challenges as a group, there are less likely to feel overwhelmed and discouraged, she said. 

“Isolated, they feel inferior; they feel like something is wrong with them,” Richardson-Brower said. 

Sandra Gutierrez, who will be a seventh grader at Willard Middle School next year, seemed to agree with this analysis. Asked why she enjoyed the program, she said: “If you don’t know something, you can ask somebody and they’ll tell you the answer. And we have more attention from the leaders because we’re in smaller groups.” 

There is also a big emphasis on presenting academic challenges in a fun format. For a first science experiment, students shoveled spoonfuls of ice cream into root beer to observe how the steady streams of bubbles would keep it afloat.  

On Tuesday, as part of a summerlong course in basic geology, the students scraped away at mineral samples with fingernails, pennies and steel nails to test their hardness. They practiced some basic arithmetic as they worked to rate the minerals on a hardness scale of one to 10.  

Writing is emphasized in all activities to help improve the student’s literacy (many are first generation Mexican- and Asian-Americans who are not yet fluent in English). Students are asked to write as complete a description of possible of their mineral samples, using color, hardness, surface texture and more. Spelling doesn’t count so much as the number of words students manage to get down on the page. 

“It gets them comfortable,” said YMCA volunteer tutor Jennifer Larsh. “It reminds them that learning can be fun.”  

“For some students, by the third grade, they’ve completely lost the will to learn; the joy of it,” Larsh said.  

The South Branch YMCA is located at 2901 California St. in South Berkeley. For more information about the branch’s programs, contact Shirley Richardson-Brower at (510)-843-4280.