A happy, healthy summer for kids; Center offers meals, activities.
LEOMINSTER - The summer program at the Spanish American Center has been feeding the bodies and minds of area children for more than 20 years.
For six weeks this summer, from July 6 through Aug. 14, children ages 5 to 18 spend their mornings sharing meals and activities.
They arrive at the center on Spruce Street at 9 a.m. for breakfast, and then participate in a variety of "Summer Fun" activities. The children then eat lunch around noon and leave at 12:30 p.m. The program serves an average of 450 meals each week.
As the needs of the community have grown, so has the program.
Last year the summer program lasted five weeks. This year, another week was added because "more families are struggling," said Neddy Latimer, director of the Spanish American Center.
"A lot of our clients have lost their jobs," she said, which makes the meals prepared and served especially important. "It's so rewarding, seeing the kids coming to participate. It is a lot of hard work, but it is very rewarding."
The center also provides meals to children at eight area sites: the Spanish American Center, the Boys and Girls Club in Leominster, Cleghorn Neighborhood Center in Fitchburg, Elm Street Congregational Church in Fitchburg, Communities of Care in Fitchburg, Riverside Clubhouse in Leominster, Litchfield Terrace in Leominster and Iglesia Casa de Restauracion in Leominster.
The program is funded by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education nutrition program, with assistance from the United Way and Project Bread.
Meals must meet government standards for nutritional balance. Ms. Latimer said she wouldn't have it any other way. "I don't believe in giving children sandwiches for dinner," she said.
The program provides more than meals. Children participate in a range of sports and activities, including the popular "peace circle." Youngsters sit in a circle, get to know each other and discuss their concerns.
"They talk about issues that impact their lives and get to know their neighbors," Ms. Latimer said. "They learn to become good citizens, and to become leaders."
Programs also include talks on healthy eating at home and presentations by local police departments on staying safe.
The program allows teens to serve as peer counselors, working with the children to teach such skills as conflict resolution.
Sharleen Torres, 15, of Fitchburg has been a peer counselor for four summers. "I learned that each kid has their own character and they have their own different way of dealing with different problems," she said.
For Ms. Latimer, the program is all about "keeping kids in a healthy environment. They come here to learn about nutrition and values."
PHOTOG: T&G Staff/RICK CINCLAIR
CUTLINE: (1) Children play in the "Summer Fun" program at the Spanish American Center in Leominster. (2) Karyna M. Perez, 5, eats lunch during the "Summer Fun" program at the Spanish American Center in Leominster.