BLAST program keeps Mahomet's youths active, strong

It's more than convenience.

For Mahomet-Seymour students in the Mahomet Area Youth Club's BLAST (Bulldogs Learning and Succeeding Together) program, it's more than just an after-school program. And for parents, it's more than just a safe place for their child to be until they can pick them up.

Since 2013, BLAST has provided after-school enrichment opportunities four times a school year for students who are 6 to 18.

"We love BLAST," Mahomet-Seymour Parent Lisa Hanchett said. "For us, as working parents, BLAST is a great program because it offers many different opportunities to the children without having to take them anywhere else. It's nice that each time we sign up, there are different programs offered. Our son has really enjoyed each session."

Learning through dance

The classes include dancing, crocheting, robotics, Spanish, writing, 3-D printing and others. A staple offering over the last five years for elementary students has been Kristina Robinson, who has taught ZUMBA KIDS, ballet and next up A MUSICAL.

"If you've heard it once, you've heard it a million times. Our kids need to move," Robinson said.

The Mahomet native uses beloved children's stories to bring movement and imagination to life for her students.

Robinson's current ZUMBA KIDS course is looking at the classic story of "Ferdinand the Bull" on the heels of the 20th Century Fox release of the movie "Ferdinand."

"This current class is about how to find the courage to walk away from a fight or argument," she said. "It just so happens that the soundtrack from the movie (inspired by the book) will make anyone want to move."

But, like anything, Robinson is not about to keep all the fun to herself.

"This fall I taught a fire-safety themed Zumba class," she said. "The Cornbelt Fire Department came in and answered our questions and provided demonstrations. The kids listened so carefully, then the firefighters humored us and watched the kids perform all that they had learned."

In years past, she has bridged the gap between her senior Zumba class at Bridle Brook and her elementary Zumba class by sharing stories between the two groups. Bridle Brook residents have visited the elementary schools to work out with the children, too.

While current Zumba students hear encouraging words from the Bridle Brook residents, Robinson tried something new this session by inviting guest speakers into her class to read books.

"Most recently, their school social worker popped in for a welcomed visit to read a book "Tommy Can't Stop" by Tim Federle and Mark Fearing. Tommy likely is battling ADHD and the book teaches others how to be sensitive to that," Robinson said.

"You can imagine parents of children that have trouble sitting still tend to sign their kids up for Zumba. It's a natural outlet for that.

"I tend to have many Tommys in my classes. I'm pretty sure I'm a Tommy. After a full day of feeling like everyone is frustrated with them because they have too much energy, they finally are at home in a class that welcomes wiggles. Maybe the others will find themselves being kind when they get bumped into accidentally by a friend that "can't stop."

While students dance their wiggles away, Robinson is deliberate about folding other life lessons into their sessions together.

Students learn that they don't have to like Zumba, they just have to try. She also fosters relationships between the children so that when they go to school, they will have someone to stand by them through thick and thin.

"In order for people to feel like they can dance and be themselves, they have to feel emotionally safe," Robinson said. "Old and young. In order to make Zumba happen after school, we first have to create emotional safety. It's my hope that sense of safety walks off the dance floor with these kids and they feel like they can be their true selves in their classes and at recess."

Inclusion and opportunity

Amy Escue, a parent of a child at Sangamon Elementary, has experienced these benefits.

"BLAST has been amazing for my child's social growth," Escue said. "She has been introduced and connected with kids in different classrooms that she may not have met on her own.

"She has new friends and that makes my heart happy. Just this morning, my daughter was walking into school and another girl from her BLAST class called out her name and ran to catch up to her.

"I loved seeing that she had made a new friend. They were smiling and giggling while walking into the building."

'Bridging the gap'

From the very beginning, inclusion and opportunity have been the backbone of MAYC's BLAST program.

Prior to 2013, MAYC served about a dozen students after school in the clubhouse that was located off Franklin Street. MAYC recently moved to 700 W. Main St.

With the introduction of BLAST programming, MAYC instantly grew from a dozen students to serving hundreds of students, blending together groups despite their financial status.

Prior to this merger, it was said by MAYC leaders that students that "have" could identify the students who "had not."

Another issue with students going to the clubhouse after school was that students between the ages of 6 to 17 were in the clubhouse together. The merger with the school district allows students to stay with their peers.

MAYC provides scholarships through fundraising for Mahomet-Seymour students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. Parents of students who do not qualify for free and reduced lunch pay a $40 to $60 fee for their student to participate in BLAST.

"Our community has poverty and our community has extreme wealth. It doesn't take data to see this, but it's there if you look for it. When I grew up here, this was the case, but not quite as extreme. As we continue to grow as a district the gap seems to grow," she said.

"What is happening in the (BLAST) classes?" she asked. "Kids of many different socioeconomic backgrounds are enjoying extracurriculars in a safe environment together, thus, bridging the gap."

Art-ature

Sangamon Elementary Art Teacher Jeramie Truax and Reading Specialist Angie Pagel are bridging the gap between art and literature in their BLAST course titled Art-ature.

During the third session of Art-ature in recent years, Truax and Pagel asked students to think about how art can become literature and how literature can become art.

At the beginning of each Art-ature class, Pagel shares a story. During the winter BLAST session, students learned about love and kindness.

"I think they get inspired to see what you can get from a book," Truax said. "And see how the artist in the book, their artwork is just as much based on what we are doing in class."

After the snack and a story, the students moved into their work time. Projects, like the tree and cup-of-quiet project Art-ature, students did during this session had multiple layers taking three or four sessions to complete.

"So it's not like read a book about dogs and draw a dog," Truax said. "We're trying to go bigger. And they really got it."

'Over-the-moon excited'

During one of the first meetings of BLAST this session, Truax and Pagel gave students a cup of hot tea.

To begin, students were asked what a "cup of quiet" means.

"And that day they were having great conversations coming up with ideas like, 'Go to work for the first time with my dad quiet,' and 'I'm late for school quiet,'" Truax said.

While sipping the tea, students created their art.

"You could hear a pin drop in here," Truax said.

"Our intention always is that we want that big idea to really sink in," she continued. "This time it really worked."

Students became really excited when they learned that the group would take a field trip toward the end of the session to Kaffee Mahomet, where their work would be displayed.

On Feb. 27, students talked about coffee shop etiquette before they entered the building.

"They were just over-the-moon excited," Truax said. "They feel like real artists."

"It's different than a coffee shop where you're just going for coffee," she said. "These guys go to IGA all the time. They can pop in and do what they were going to do and stop and see their work."

After returning from their field trip, students returned to a cup of hot chocolate provided by Kaffee Mahomet. They used their few minutes left to doodle.

Two students drew a picture of a person to display how no two artists draw alike, but everyone's art is worthwhile.

"Our art is unique," Lilly Luksander said.

"Doing art makes me feel proud of myself and it makes me feel like I can do anything I put my mind to," Claire Cummings said.

The Mahomet Citizen and Mahometdaily.com share a story with each other on a weekly basis.

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