Breaking the Cycle: U Students Show Kids At Risk an Alternative

School is out for the day; it’s play time. Children run around the auditorium bouncing balls, twirling hoola hoops, and, of course, screaming.

Justin Savidis stands in the middle of it all, a full two feet taller than any of his 6- or 7 year-old companions. He jokes with the kids, playfully tossing a ball at one of them?”If I hit you, you’re frozen,” he says as it bounces off the little boy.

It’s just another day at the office. Savidis, a parks, recreation and tourism major at the U, runs the Discovery Club, an after-school program for low-income, high-risk elementary school students. The club is open to any student at Mountain View elementary school, giving them an “alternative to just going home and watching TV,” said Kevin Wolz, who manages the Discovery Club’s umbrella program.

But for some, the program is more than that. Some of the kids have been abused in the past; others have started imitating gang activity by the fifth and sixth grade. The club gives the students a safe haven and helps keep them from joining gangs in the future.

Later, Savidis sits on the steps in the auditorium, talking about one of his students as he casually tosses the ball back and forth. “DeMario is one of our newest kids. It took us an entire day to get him to learn his last name,” he said, explaining Johnson never learned his last name because no one at home had ever taught him. “We would just repeat it over and over?we wrote it on the board, we always called him DeMario Johnson,” Savidis said.

While they’re at the Discovery Club, “these kids are very natural and very much themselves,” Savidis said.

But when they are in other environments, everything changes; their surroundings outside the Discovery Club do not permit them to act like other children. “You have to put up an attitude,” he said.

“They have fewer advantages?but they’re great kids, loving, they need attention. There’s a unique quality about them that other kids I’ve worked with don’t have,” continued Savidis, who has been doing this kind of work for about four years. He will be graduating this spring, and hopes to continue his work with the school.

As for his work with the club, “I just sort of fell into it,” he said. “I started working at the Northwest Community Center and started meeting people in the [school] district.” One thing led to another and today he works as the club’s program director.

Students in the club speak everything from Bosnian to Sudanese, the two most common languages being Spanish and Tongan, Wolz said. The 50 or so students who participate are divided into groups according to ages, which range from 4 to 10 or 11. One of the goals of the program is to prepare the kids for the U pass program, a series of tests all Utah high school students have to take. Each day after school, the groups rotate between different tutoring and recreational programs.

And, of course, snack time. The kids line up dutifully in one corner of the gym to receive their treat of a carton of milk and a package of cookies.

One boy plays with a balloon, squeezing the ends so the air squeaks out. The boy next to him pulls the collar of his shirt up over his ears to drown out the noise.

In another corner of the gym, a herd of students races from wall to wall. They are playing a math game. Different numbers have been taped to the walls; when a volunteer calls out a math problem?”Two plus three!!”?the kids scurry to the far end, where the number five is written on a paper beneath a basketball hoop.

It is Wednesday, one of the days a group of students from the U’s parks, recreation and tourism department visit the club to fulfill part of their service learning requirement.

“We implement some of the leadership skills we learn,” said David Gauthier, one of the students. The U volunteers play different games with the kids.

When his turn comes, Gauthier distributes bean bags to the kids in his group and lines them up in a row.

One by one they toss the bean bags at a hoola hoop lying on the gym floor. Gauthier keeps score; every time someone makes it in, the others cheer.

Members of the Discovery Club find themselves playing a lot of games like this, Savidis said, because they teach different skills, such as problem solving, self-esteem, group building and cooperation.

For example, to build self esteem, Savidis said the kids would play a game with a very high success rate.

“I would provide a challenge that seems insurmountable, then show them a way to do it,” he said.

U students first got involved in the program after Savidis filled in one day teaching a PRT class. By the end of the day, he had 30 students recruited as tutors.

Although he enjoys his work now, Savidis said he would like to write policy for programs like this, to provide guidelines for other groups and organizations.

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