Rapid Connects Kids To YMCA

December 27, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — The YMCA has hooked up with The Rapid to provide schoolchildren with bus transportation from a number of centrally located elementary schools to the new David. D. Hunting YMCA downtown.

The Rapid began offering the service in mid-October as part of a YMCA pilot program.

"Right now we're serving seven neighborhoods and our goal is to expand that up to about 10," said Jan Wierenga, vice president of the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids. "We've already identified the neighborhoods. Right now it's just a matter of figuring out how we staff it and how we organize it with The Rapid. Our expansion efforts are to continue to add stops at elementary schools that serve specific neighborhoods." 

The route is a regular fixed route that has had some new stops added to accommodate elementary students headed to or from the YMCA, said Jennifer Kalczuk, spokesperson for The Rapid.

Students affiliated with the YMCA program ride free, while all other passengers are required to pay the standard fee. Under the agreement, a Rapid bus services the route Mondays through Fridays from about 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., with one pickup and one return trip to each of the elementary school locations within selected neighborhoods, Wierenga said.

With the support of the Grand Rapids Public Schools system, the YMCA worked with elementary school principals to identify students that needed some after-school support, and those are the students targeted for the YMCA after-school program for kids, she said.  A YMCA staff person is stationed on board to supervise students on the trips to and from the Y, she noted.

The program is a package deal that includes bus transportation, use of the YMCA's fitness center for kids, participation in classes such as swimming, and a free youth membership at the Y.

The YMCA's Strong Kids campaign funds the free memberships and programs for kids in need, as well as the staff to support the program, Wierenga said. The campaign's goal for 2006 is to raise $1 million to service kids and families in need throughout greater Grand Rapids

Under the partnership agreement, the YMCA pays The Rapid $49.98 per revenue hour — which is the full cost of providing the fixed route service, minus 30 percent state operating costs. The YMCA's cost for a full year of transportation service is $38,316, which is being picked up by the Grand Rapids Community Foundation for the first two years of the program.

The current transportation contract runs through May 2006. Wierenga said the YMCA will be adding Saturday service shortly. In addition, the YMCA and The Rapid are working on a similar game plan for the summer to make this a year-round opportunity for kids.

"We have to figure out if we're going to continue to pick up students at schools in the summer, or if will we do neighborhood bus stops, but that's yet to be determined. We're trying to determine safe, secure places where kids will feel comfortable getting on our supervised buses. Our intention is to continue this relationship with The Rapid so that kids are serviced year round."

The pilot program is only nine weeks old and has already been "remarkably successful," Wierenga said.

"The response has been phenomenal from kids, from parents, from school principals and from the community. We're serving about 200 kids a week right now, and we have a waiting list of kids that want to participate. Obviously, we're working within some limited grant dollars from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. So to serve more kids, we'll have to figure out how to expand that financially and where other community partners might come from."

Kids love the program just for the fun of it, she said. School principals and parents love it because they know the kids are going to have a safe, well-structured environment to go to after school. If not for the program, some of the students would be going home alone to an unsupervised environment. The program offers them supervision by quality staff and a year-round membership opportunity, Wierenga said.

It's also an initiative to help kids stay fit because the YMCA offers plenty of opportunities for health and fitness, she added.

"We wanted to make sure that by closing our downtown Y and closing our West Y and moving to the new facility that our YMCA is very accessible to our inner city neighborhoods and inner city kids. We want our kids to have an opportunity to be safe and healthy. We want them to feel comfortable and secure coming to the YMCA every day and that's our goal."    

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