Directors of after-school programs around the nation fear the deepening recession will force more children to spend afternoons home alone or on the street as cash-strapped governments slash funding and donations shrink.
While those programs become early victims of the economic downturn, many of the nation's 4,300 Boys & Girls programs are trimming hours, consolidating locations and cutting field trips to get by, said Kirk Dominick, an executive vice president with Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
"We'd be crazy to not project a decrease next year. We're trying to identify the most vulnerable clubs out there," he said, adding he doesn't have precise numbers yet. "Some organizations have been struggling for a while."
The 38 employees of the Boys & Girls Clubs programs that are shuttering in South Carolina will continue to be paid through mid-December. But hopes are high that a push for more donations will allow most of the clubs to reopen in January, said Robert Brunson, board chairman of the affected clubs in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties. Donations from businesses and foundations have been on the decline.
After-school programs of all kinds are hurting nationwide, especially in rural areas, at a time when parents need affordable care more than ever, said Jodi Grant, executive director of Washington-based Afterschool Alliance, which is pushing for federal support.
"Parents are struggling to keep their jobs. They're taking on second and third jobs. They need a place after school that's a safe place to go," Grant said. "What I find most troubling is, programs are doing everything they can, cutting to the bone."
Shawn Anderson, a single, working parent in Charleston, said she is fighting to reopen her daughter's inner-city club, which began in 1957. She considers the club indispensable, a safe haven for youth. It is among the seven closing Friday.
"The staff really helps these kids," said Anderson, whose 9-year-old relishes afternoons there. "She's an only child, very shy. They've taught her things I didn't have time to do. Now she's an extrovert, and she's on the honor roll."
Anderson, 43, said that while she could afford after-school care elsewhere if it comes to that, there are other single parents who can't.
"Our children will be lost," she said. "They definitely will resort to the streets."
The director of South Carolina's Afterschool Alliance, Zelda Waymer, said she expects more of the state's after-school programs to close as the economy worsens. Programs for poor parents depend on state money and fundraising, she said.
In South Carolina's case, projected tax collections have plummeted some $1 billion since the summer, and nonprofits aren't expecting the state to help. The Legislature eliminated $1.3 million to Boys & Girls Clubs statewide.
"The drastic downfall in the economy has touched everyone," Waymer said. "Before, we could turn to foundations and businesses, but businesses are closing and stocks are down."
With more kids out on the streets after school, she warned of unintended consequences: The "crime rate will go up. Gang violence will increase."
Judy Nee, president and chief executive of the Washington-based National Afterschool Association, said many of her member programs are reporting shrinking enrollment as parents can no longer afford to pay, making it harder to provide quality educational activities. Children in the fourth grade and higher are being left at home by parents who figure it's OK for a few hours, she said.
"We've come a long way in this field," Nee said. "I'm hoping we can mitigate and get through this relatively quickly."
Other organizations are managing to get by, though.
Greg Tolbert, president of 12 Boys & Girls Clubs in northwestern South Carolina, said grants and increased donations from residents have allowed those clubs to add 50 children in the last year. A club on the brink of closing last summer was taken over by the school district to keep it open.
"God's taken care of us," Tolbert said. "People are realizing the need is greater and they're giving."