By Christina Lenis
Smiling faces awaiting summer fun radiate from behind the green nylon seats of a yellow school bus. Outside, staff members wearing light blue t-shirts with the Wheels to Water logo on the front, hold clips boards, marking off names and checking for bright blue wristbands as children continue to board.
The bus engine starts to rumble. The excitement of children on summer vacation can be heard throughout.
The chatter soon seizes as the rules of the day are read by one of five staff members. The rumbling of the engine intensifies and the bus departs.
Unfamiliar streets aligned with three deckers pass by on either side of the bus. Suddenly, the wheels hit the freshly paved parking lot, as the bus glides to the entrance of the multi-million dollar Boys and Girls Club on Main St. The chattering intensifies, as the children quickly exit the bus, happy to have arrived.
The cold air of the newly built facility surrounds the children as they scurry to changing rooms anticipating the afternoon’s activities.
Glass doors open to the echoes of childhood summer vacation at its finest. The blue upside-down triangular flags mark the halfway point for the Olympic long waters. The moist air and the scent of chlorine create a humidity that only a dip in the turquoise sea can cool. There’s a breath. A jump. A splash. Summer has officially begun.
This summer, children ages 8-17 are taking part in the Wheels to Water program sponsored by the City of Worcester in partnership with over forty area agencies. The program boasts over 500 visits to nine sites including city and state beaches, lakes, and private pools. Enrollment in the program is growing, with nearly filled buses leaving sites like the South Worcester Neighborhood Center daily.
“It’s actually a brilliant program,” says Ronald Charlette, Director of the South Worcester Neighborhood Center. In South Worcester, neighborhood kids have access to the multi-million dollar Boys and Girls Club, which is their swim site through the Wheels to Water program. The program really creates a real sense of caring for these kids, says Charlette. “The city could have simple said, we don’t have any money, we can’t open the pools, you all have to take responsibility for your kids – but they didn’t.”
This summer, 8 of the 9 Worcester city pools were deemed unsafe and shut down. Unable to provide the funding needed to repair the pools, City Manager Mike O’Brien and his staff began to look for alternatives. “The City Manager reached out to locals for support,” says Jesse Edwards, Director of the Wheels to Water program and the city’s Youth coordinator. O’Brien and his staff immediately started a sales and marketing initiative to raise funds for their program (Edwards chose the name, Wheels to Water). The initiative was able to raise over a quarter of a million dollars in a few weeks – all non-public funding.
“Organizations that might not work together because they have their own agendas, were able to come together for a common cause,” says Charlette.
Executive Director of Friendly House, Gordon Hardgrove agrees, “I think it [the program] speaks to the tremendous effort of a large number of community agencies in the city coming together and saying, ‘look, what can we do to facilitate [these] programs?’”
After working together for several years, the City decided to make Friendly House the central hub for the Wheels to Water program. Friendly House coordinates the program in conjunction with a number of public/private organizations that have swimming facilities.
The Wheels to Water program is coordinated by substitute teacher and mother of two, Martina Jasiewicz. In charge of supervising the nine sites, organizing transportation, and training staff, Jasiewicz, says she is happy to do what she can to ensure that children are safe and enjoying their summer.
James Estrella is the liaison between the City and Friendly House working with both Edwards and Jasiewicz on a daily, if not hourly basis to coordinate activities.
The program also works in conjunction with the Friendly House Summer Feeding Program and Project Bread, who supplies lunches on the weekends to children and families who take part in the Wheels to Water program, which travels to city and state beaches and lakes 12-5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
Children must be registered for the program by a parent or guardian. Registration packets can be picked up at any of the community agencies involved in the program or accessed online at the City of Worcester website. Registration is on-going, so if parents haven’t had the chance to sign their children up they can at any time.
Many of the community agencies, such as the South Worcester Neighborhood Center have their own programs during the day that end when the Wheels to Water program starts. Children can go to one of these agencies in the morning and take part in a variety of activities from arts and crafts to tennis to summer reading. Breakfast and lunch is provided at many of these places as well. Most of these programs end at 2 p.m. when Wheels to Water begins.
Boys and Girls Club Director of Operations, Joe Hungler says it’s important that all kids have the opportunity learn how to swim. Swimming sites like Boys and Girls Club provide free swimming lessons to children as part of the program. The Boys and Girls Club also offers a drop-in policy, where as long as children are over the age of 13, they can show up to the site and swim. Exposure to the city’s various clubs has left many children wanting to become members, says Charlette.
Eleven-year old Junior Laportez and his ten-year old brother Chris get ready to jump into the waters. “It [swimming] gives you exercise and muscles,” says Junior. Eleven-year old Jeffet Quinones adds, “We get exercise, we get to have fun.” These are a few of the happy voices that fill the Boys and Girls Club on summer afternoons.
Charlette adds that the Wheels to Water program has brought to people’s attention many of the community-based organizations and services offered throughout the city. “Yeah it’s about swimming with the kids, but it’s also about connecting families in the community with services and programs we can help them with year-round,” says Charlette.
“We have a great ending today for our kids.”