By Jeff Keeling
Cherokee Elementary second grader Aracely Martinez snacks on a cereal bar as her older sister Jocelyn passes out juice boxes to her friends. After a long day at school Friday, being able to kick back in the sunshine and enjoy some nice, cold apple juice just feels right. This is Aracely’s first year in the Active Kids Club at Coalition for Kid’s (C4K) after school program, and thanks to a major move completed in January, a lot has changed since August.
“The playground here is bigger and so is the gym,” Aracely said, pointing a sticky finger at the colorful Kaboom! playground outside of C4K’s new location on Susannah Street, “but here is just as much fun as it used to be. But at the other place there was nothing and this playground is the real thing.”
To celebrate its new location at 2423 Susannah St. in Johnson City, C4K will have its grand opening next Tuesday, April 12 from 5 to 7 p.m. The public is invited.
The move from “The Rock” near Tyler Apartments to “Kid City,” as the new space is called, occurred thanks to longtime donor Mitch Cox’s purchase of the building. Cox and a host of subcontractors and vendors, who often worked at or below cost, retrofitted the former Tri-Cities Christian School to position C4K for a new phase of growth.
“For us to be blessed this way, it was a combination of timing,” C4K Executive Director Randy Hensley said shortly after the administrative staff had completed their move in. “He’s (Cox) been blessed, he has seen what we’ve done; we’ve walked with a lot of credibility, he has walked with us the whole time and his commitment’s gone up the whole time. When he came and he said he had this sense that God was leading him to do something big, I don’t know anybody who has ever thought of this, but he brought it up to me and said ‘here’s what I’m thinking about doing’ and I was like ‘wow, this is going to be… seriously?’”
Now that C4K has moved out of 9,700 square feet at The Rock and into 30,000 square feet, Hensley said the non-profit’s vision to walk kids through life is expanding along with the physical space.
C4K has brought six of its 10 programs into the new facility. Hensley has no plans of moving any programming out of the Keystone community or South Side Elementary and other elementary schools. He does plan to open up programming for seventh and eighth graders in the next two years and create new programing for high school students within the next five years.
“We have two paths of growth,” he said. “We added the seventh grade this year; we’ll add the eighth grade next year. We’ve never had those before. And we’ll move through to twelfth (grade). They’ll operate out of this facility as we grow.”
This idea of expanding programming into the older grades is one rooted in Hensley’s belief that kids in grades 7-12 in the Johnson City area often require creativity to rally.
“We’re missing the gap,” Hensley said. “This is the gap, this group (7-12 graders). I don’t know that it’s as much that it’s a gap as much as it’s, this is the hardest group of kids to figure out how to corral.”
Difficult as it may be to organize, say, eighth graders, Hensley said that “gap” is the age group that needs mentoring and direction the most.
“I went to the prison four different times and served out there,” he said, “and every time they found out that I was in this work, 100 percent of the time they said, ‘I wish I had somewhere to go besides just being free when I got out of school. I think it would’ve changed my life if I had had somewhere that would’ve cared for me, kept me within boundaries, compared to the freedom that I thought I was in control of my life and my decisions.’”
But for now, Hensley said, his staff is still trying to make the new facility home, while at the same time looking around at similar programs in other cities. So far Hensley has visited Atlanta and Nashville and plans to visit Chicago.
“We’re two and a half months in here trying to figure out how to be efficient with what we’ve got,” he said. “As we walk into the older grades, it’s going to be a real challenge to manage a new program. So we’re looking at programs that are being successful. We want (the kids) to come and then come the next year and the next year. You want to layer that because the future would be that we would design a program where we can send kids into college and walk with them there too, to get them to graduate.”
No matter what the future holds for C4K, Hensley said one thing is certain: they could not have expected growth while remaining in 9,700 square feet. He said Cox’s generosity “filled in the gaps.” Because of this, Hensley said, C4K is able to stay within its operating budget despite the move and the addition of new staff.
“We have more staff than we’ve ever had,” he said. “We’re at 53 staff and we’ve never crossed that line. So the question will be, ‘how far will we go next year?’”
“We are just 18 years old,” he said. “So when you really go back and think 18 years old, 400 kids a day, just at 400 kids a day in programming… I go and look at programs that have been around 50 years and have 100 kids a day in them. To have the growth we’ve had, to have the quality of staff we have, to have the people that’s come on board and made the difference that’s been made, by itself, without this facility, I’ve been so blown away looking at what the Coalition has become.
“Somebody’s generosity like Mitch’s absolutely just turned this thing upside down. For me, it makes it new again. It’s like coming to work and you’re just starting all over again. It’s fresh, it’s new, it’s energetic, the staff is excited, the kids are excited, the potential for where you’re going makes you look up and go, ‘you think 400’s a big deal?’ I don’t know that 800’s big deal. I think that could happen in the next 12-24 months. I think we could be sitting at 800 kids.”