Participants in the Y's Northern York County Child Care program show off their works of art. SUBMITTED PHOTO/Courtesy of YMCA of Southern Maine

Participants in the Y’s Northern York County Child Care program show off their works of art. SUBMITTED PHOTO/Courtesy of YMCA of Southern Maine

BIDDEFORD — More than 38,000 children in Maine, 20 percent of all kids in the state, are left unsupervised when school lets out at the end of the day.

They’re a fraction of the 11.3 million youngsters across the nation left alone from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., according to public awareness advocacy organization Afterschool Alliance.

The YMCA of Southern Maine, whose Northern York County branch calls Biddeford home, is trying to change that. Through its before- and after-care programs, the Y, as the center is colloquially known, is helping children in kindergarten through fifth grade stay active, keep busy and get engaged outside the classroom.

Sarah Leighton, the director of advancement for the YMCA of Southern Maine, said Thursday that the programming isn’t just about providing a place for children to stay when their parents aren’t home. Rather, she said, the Y puts in an educational twist.

“When people think about before- and after-school care, they think of it as just having a place for kids to be. But we don’t just treat it like child care,” she said. “We treat it like an extension of their school day. We want to make sure when they’re with us, they’re engaged.”

Part of that includes teaching the little ones about science, technology, engineering and math — the rising field popularly known as STEM — as well as social skills and physical activity. The Y even provides academic support to students, in what the center calls a “holistic approach to youth development.”

“Whatever it is that can really help them,” Leighton said.

The School Age Child Care, as the care is known, is available before school, starting at 6:30 a.m. and running to the start of school, and again after school until 6 p.m. Buses are available Monday through Friday to and from Biddeford Primary and Intermediate Schools and John F. Kennedy Memorial School.

Just under 100 children were served last year, Leighton said, and more are expected to be in attendance this year.

Talk of before- and after-care options come at an exciting time. The YMCA of Southern Maine announced Friday it will be expanding its Early Childhood Program, run out of Biddeford, by 20 percent this year.

The program provides 88 children, ages six weeks through five years old, in six classrooms with a nurturing, safe and supportive learning environment.

The full-day program includes activities designed to support academic, physical and emotional development. Projects include lessons in STEM, social service, swimming and healthy eating.

Helen Breña, chief executive officer of the YMCA of Southern Maine, said the program’s expansion means the center can provide better developmentally-instrumental education to more children.

“The Y is here to serve the needs of the community,” Breña said in a release. “We know that when young children are provided early support in academic, emotional and physical development in a preschool setting, they are better prepared for school, and for life.”

Currently, there are openings for children ages three and four; openings for children between 30 months and three years old are expected to begin April 1. The Y offers financial assistance to those who need it, and accepts several Maine State subsidy voucher programs, including DHHS vouchers, ASPIRE, and Transitional Assistance funds.
“We want all children in the Biddeford area to have the opportunity to learn, grow, and thrive at the Y.” said Breña of the center’s financial assistance. “We believe in fostering the whole child, including their family, and provide support and activities designed to foster character, independence, a love for nature, civic responsibility, and even leadership skills, in all the children we care for.”
Leighton said, amidst all the center’s recent developments, she’s hoping people take advantage of the services the Y has to offer — as they have done for so many years.

“People trust us,” she said. “We’re known in the community for our childcare, for a lot of things. People come to us for a specific reason, because they’ve had great experiences in the past.”

She said people and families develop relationships with their local YMCAs, and that the centers often become a child’s second home.

“People often times see us as an extension of their families. When you come to the Y, you’re seeing familiar faces,” Leighton said. “Being able to have that familiar face is something that’s invaluable.

“It’s really just a good feeling,” she said.

— Staff Writer Alan Bennett can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 329 or [email protected]

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