PORTLAND – At the Riverton Park housing project, children used to line up to get inside the clubhouse operated by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine. Once it reached its capacity of 40 children, though, staffers would have to hang out a sign: “SORRY – WE ARE FULL – TRY BACK IN A LITTLE WHILE.”
“It broke my heart to put that sign out,” said Tiffanie Panagakos, who directs the clubhouse programs at Riverton and Sagamore Village. “We have windows right in front, and the little ones would peek in the windows. They wanted to come in.”
That sign now is gone, and the children have come in.
The clubhouse reopened this month after a $180,000 expansion.
During a ceremony marking the reopening, two children ripped up a paper copy of that sign to celebrate.
The expansion adds another 1,000 square feet of space, an increase of 50 percent that allows the program to serve 60 to 70 children at any one time.
“We are just so thrilled,” Panagakos said. “I have vowed to never put that ‘full’ sign up again.”
About 350 children live in the housing project, which has 141 apartment units, all with multiple bedrooms, and serves large families. The clubhouse provides free after-school activities, such as sports and fitness programs, arts and crafts and homework help, for children ages 5 to 13.
It’s open from 3 to 6 p.m., and all day during the summer.
The clubhouse, one of three in the city operated by Boys & Girls Clubs, provides children with a fun, safe place that keeps them busy and out of trouble, said Mark Adelson, executive director of the Portland Housing Authority.
The nonprofit organization helps children achieve academic success, live healthy lifestyles and develop good character.
“The more activities the better,” Adelson said. “The demand is huge out there.”
The success of the program stems from the 17-year partnership between the Boys & Girls Clubs and the Portland Housing Authority, said Robert Clark, chief executive officer of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine.
“Every step along the way, they have made it possible to serve more kids there and serve them better,” he said of the Housing Authority.
The city allocated more than $90,000 for the project through the federal Community Development Block Grant program. The Housing Authority allocated $16,000.
The rest of the money came from foundations and private donations, including $30,000 from an anonymous donor.
The Boys & Girls Clubs has offered programs at Riverton since 2001.
The nonprofit group operates five clubhouses in Maine — three in Portland, one in South Portland and one in Auburn.
The clubhouse in Riverton has more than 200 registered members.
Its upstairs learning center includes a technology room and music room. Downstairs, there’s an art room and a “healthy fuel station” for snacks or light meals.
There is also a play area for sports.
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: