Balancing a parent's need to find a safe place for their child during the summer with a kid's desire for fun can be tricky. The Child Youth and School Services summer camp programs have managed to keep everyone happy while school is out.

Programs at the Youth Center and School Age Services give parents peace of mind for the weeks between school years. They kicked off the week following the end of the Huntsville city school term and will conclude during the first week of August. They have offered the two age groups different ways to pass the time safely and happily.

Kids in elementary school, from kindergarten to fifth-grade, attend the day camps at the new Myra Garriott School Age Services building, which opened in April. Camp goes until 5 p.m. each day. Inside the spacious facility, kids got to choose how they want to spend their summer.

"Every three weeks they sign up for a different track," facility director Mary Washington said. "There are eight tracks. They have music, arts and crafts, sports and fitness, reading and language arts, science and nature, technology, hiking and walking, and the techno room has video games."

After lunch, children complete their time in their chosen track before moving on to the next part of their day - clubs of their choosing. Eight clubs offer kids a chance to learn more about their areas of interest. Some, like technology club, pick up where the tracks leave off. Others, such as rocketry, offer new areas to explore.

Of course, all kids love field trips. To make the group of 100-150 kids more manageable, they are divided into two age groups: 5 to 8, and 9 and up. Every week, both groups rotate to visit on-post activities like the pools and bowling center. Trips off post rotate on a biweekly basis. Kids from the camp have been to area attractions like the Chattanooga Aquarium and Birmingham's McWane Science Center.

"They're educational," Washington said. "But they're fun, too. Field trip days are a big hit here."
Unlike traditional daycare programs off post, the SAS summer camp prides itself on its flexibility. Parents can pick and choose which weeks their kids will attend. That means that they pay only for the time they actually need.

"In daycare you have to pay for every week to hold your space," Washington said. "We let parents choose which weeks they want. That way they can plan their vacations and not have to pay for a week they know their child is not going to be here."

Middle and high school students don't really need a babysitter and often resent any implication that they do. For them, the Youth Center summer program offers an alternative to sitting at home alone while their parents are at work.

"It's not childcare," Youth Center director Scott Shuffler said. "It is an alternative to sitting at home, but we look at it as more of an investment in the future."

From 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. each weekday, the Youth Center gives teens a place to have fun, socialize and explore their interests in a less structured way. In between the provided breakfast and lunch, they have their choice of activities in the center's gym, computer lab and art room. They can watch a movie from the center's library, curl up with a book in the new furnishings, practice the piano in a soundproof room, play a game or just hang out with their friends. Tutoring and sports are also available.

"We want to provide programs that help the kids do well in things they want to do better in, whether that's tutoring or getting involved in a sports league," Shuffler said. "If they have something they do well, we want to help them do better."

They have also enjoyed weekly field trips. The off-post offerings have included the Huntsville Museum of Art, Decatur's Point Mallard Water Park and the Birmingham Zoo.

"Sometimes they just go bowling or swimming on post," Shuffler said. "They go to movies. They have a great time."

Shuffler said many kids who get into trouble were just looking for something to do. Programs like the Youth Center camp give them a safe place to have fun. They have the supervision they need coupled with the independence they want. The combination has been a hit.

"We bring them into a positive, supervised atmosphere with adults who care about them. They're responding to it. We have record numbers," Shuffler said. "It's my understanding that we have almost double the number of kids than in previous years."

Now that summer is winding down, both facilities are gearing up for back to school. School Age Services offers both before and after school care, with busing to and from local schools for kids. The Youth Center is in the midst of negotiations to provide after school busing to their facility as well so that teens can come directly to the center until their parents are home.

"We're looking to take the programs that kids are interested in and expand them during the after school program," Shuffler said.

For more information on programs at either facility or to enroll a child, call Child Youth and School Services central enrollment and registration at 876-3704 or visit their office in building 1500 on Weeden Mountain Drive.