Cherry Street Youth Center is gearing up for multiple year-end activities on the cusp of its 25th anniversary.
Volunteers are setting up the annual Christmas Store for children to buy gifts for their families, and currently a matching-fund drive could provide a third of the center’s annual budget. Cherry Street is also providing winter coats for children in need.
Executive Director Jennifer Shields said that the center’s purpose continues to be an ecumenical ministry to help children be the best they can be.
The center opened May 1, 1995, partly out of concerns about the high rate of poverty and at-risk children on the north side of Chanute. Shields said poverty is still part of its emphasis. The center provides Christian-based afterschool activities for children in the Chanute school district.
Original organizer Barbara Prier and a group of local residents purchased an 800-square-foot house to serve as the first center at Forest Avenue and Cherry Street.
“It needed a lot of work,” Prier recalled.
Shields said the center later opened additional space a few blocks west at Garfield and Cherry. A gymnasium and classrooms were added to the east campus and the house was torn down for administration and office space. Two years ago, a garden, greenhouse and storm shelter/classroom were added on the west campus.
Board president Rick Qualls said the youth center goes back to a Christmas basket program, which local supporters took over after the original organizers ended it.
“Those that were involved thought that more was needed,” Qualls said.
The group evolved into the supporters who started Cherry Street, which Qualls said has lasted so long because of the generosity of Chanute churches that provide volunteers and staff.
“God just sent so many hearts through the years to support it,” Prier said. “God’s hand was on Cherry Street.”
The former neighborhood Alcott Elementary School today is New Life Brethren in Christ Church. Prier said the principal and teachers helped guide them.
She said 50 people showed up at the first volunteers’ meeting, and more than 40 children attended the first day.
“I had no idea how many children would be served,” she said.
The center currently cares for a total of 130 students, with about 50 elementary students at each of the east and west campuses and 30 who attend Royster Middle School.
“We don’t expect them here every day,” Shields said, adding that they hope the middle-school students are plugged into afterschool activities like sports.
There are 27 paid employees and 15 regular volunteers at Cherry Street, although the number of volunteers can range up to 30 adults plus Neosho County Community College and Chanute High School students.
“We really have quite a few people that connect and touch Cherry Street that don’t have a kid over here,” Shields said.
Another 23 students have left the program this year because of family changes such as moving, new jobs or placement in foster care.
Because some early organizers were members of the First Baptist Church, Shields said some people thought the center was a branch of the church. But she reiterated that the center is non-denominational, with board members who have been Catholic, Lutheran and Nazarene. Although the center is Christian-based, Shields said Jewish or other faiths would never be refused.
The Christmas Store begins the week of Dec. 9. For 25 cents, children can select gifts for up to five family members from donated items. Volunteers from the NCCC soccer teams and CHS FFA program will help guide the students to select proper gifts, which are then gift-wrapped.
The coat program begins in October and continues as long as needed. Shields said the center has always given donated coats to elementary students, and this year is the third for middle school students. So far, the program has given out 38 coats this year.
“We want kids to have a warm coat,” Shields said.
The matching fund drive has a deadline of Christmas Day to raise $50,000 from local donations. Those funds will then receive a match for a total of up to $100,000, which Shields said is enough to operate the center for 72 days.
The center is in session 175 during the school year from 3 to 5 pm Monday through Friday, plus 32 to 36 days in June and July. Shields said the annual budget is $290,000.
So far in the drive this year, only about $27,000 has been raised, so there is still a long way to go in order to be able to take full advantage of the total match.
Cherry Street also provides $500 scholarships to kids and volunteers who participate through an entire school year.
Shields said many area businesses support the center financially, with donated items or volunteers.
“We have so many people that support what we’re doing,” she said.
“Twenty-five years is amazing,” Prier said.
For more information, or to make a donation, contact Shields at (620) 431-2161. All donations are tax-deductible.