On a bright morning in October, the small storefront space that is home to the Allentown Learning and Engagement Center, or ALEC, is quiet. The walls are lined with books, games, and children’s photography and artwork. Come about 3 p.m., though, a gaggle of elementary school kids will pile through the door in a whir of energy. Today, they’ll complete homework, learn a lesson about another country from an ALEC staff member (Ireland is the topic), and snack on peanut butter tortilla roll-ups.
ALEC was originally a Carnegie Library pop-up program slated to last 18 months with the aim of providing library services to residents who did not have easy access to other public libraries. But in Allentown, a historically underserved neighborhood in the Hilltop community in South Pittsburgh, the program quickly became an invaluable resource for neighborhood kids, and a place they could visit on weekends and evenings when their parents were working.
The Brashear Association, which has ties of nearly 100 years to the neighborhood, partnered with the library and provided funding to turn the pop-up library into a permanent program that today serves 30 neighborhood kids from second through fifth grade in its after school program. ALEC is also open to first through eigth graders on the weekends.
By providing out-of-school programming for kids, and being accessible on Saturdays and in the summer, ALEC is filling a vital community need.
Amber Rooke, education coordinator at the Brashear Association, said ALEC is one of only two afterschool programs in Allentown. The Afterschool Alliance estimates that nationally there are 19.4 million children not currently in an afterschool program who would enroll if one were available.
The two programs in Allentown collectively serve only 50 youngsters out of more than 200 in the neighborhood’s elementary school.
That’s one reason why Rooke was preparing for the “Lights on Afterschool” event organized by the Allegheny Partners for Out-of-School Time (APOST). It was one of 19 events across Pittsburgh (out of 8,000 nationwide organized by the Afterschool Alliance). The events are put on by schools and afterschool programs to attract business, political, and community leaders, and to advocate for afterschool and summer programs.
Research shows the benefits of afterschool programs like ALEC include offering a safe place for kids while their parents are at work, providing exercise, and serving healthy food. And by partnering with other community organizations and non-profits, the programs are also providing important learning opportunities.
For example, earlier this month, Venture Outdoors, an outdoor-education nonprofit, took ALEC students geocaching in Grandview Park. The Venture Outdoors team helped the students use GPS devices to locate hidden trivia questions about their community. And last summer, Venture Outdoors hosted a two-week summer camp where they took ALEC students kayaking twice on the river through downtown Pittsburgh, a place many students had never been.
“We’re trying to utilize our neighbors and partners as a way to get new resources to our kids and open more opportunities and services for all youth in Allentown,” Rooke said.
That can mean field trips just down the street. Rooke recently reached out to Spool, a neighboring fabric and quilting store, to organize future workshops where kids could learn sewing and needlework basics.
What does it look like when ALEC successfully forms a strong partnership? Rooke remembered watching the kids be afraid of kayaking at first, only to become pros by the end. As she put it, “It’s amazing to see how much they grew.”