There were hundreds of them. They blocked the sidewalk outside of Queens Borough Hall and quickly filled up the stairs to the Kew Gardens building, all of them repeatedly chanting, “No more cuts!” and “Save our Beacon!”
It was the united cry of hundreds of children who take part in after-school programs around the borough, all of them demanding that the mayor and city think twice before cutting the funding on vital after-school programs.
It was an elaborate display aimed at changing the mayor’s mind and one of the final calls before the July 1 deadline when the budget takes effect.
“I love my Beacon program,” said Yasmin Kashef, a sixth-grader who attends Forest Hills’ Junior High School 190 Beacon program, last Thursday.
“I hope the mayor doesn’t cut it because I don’t know where I’ll go,” she said. “They really take care of us.”
The students were not alone. In addition to their after-school mentors, they had Queens Borough President Helen Marshall on their side, as well as other elected officials, including Councilmen Mark Weprin and James Sanders and Assemblywoman Grace Meng.
“We’re going to make sure that everybody hears us, from the mayor to the governor,” Marshall, surrounded by children, said. “We’re going to work hard to make sure these programs stay open.”
Marshall said that growing up she enjoyed after-school programs and she knows how vital they are to a child’s development.
“I’m so proud of you for coming out,” she told the students. “You are representing all the children in our borough and the city whose programs are being threatened.”
The rally was organized by the children’s advocacy group, Campaign for Children. After school programs including the J.H.S. 190 Beacon, the M.S. 158 Beacon, Out of School Time (OST) and the Sports and Arts in Schools Foundation (SASF) urged the mayor to reconsider fully funding the programs in the city’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget.
The cuts to the programs are part of the $2.1 million in cuts to the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), which Mayor Bloomberg has called for in an effort to save the city money for Fiscal Year 2013.
Although DYCD spokesperson Cathleen Collins said that it is not a decision taken lightly, others say there is no room to consider withdrawing funding for the young population.
“We cannot balance the budget on the backs of students,” said Jim O’Neill, executive director of OST.
Weprin called the programs “essential to the education of our children.”
“They are in a safe, good place where they learn and have fun,” he said.
According to The Campaign for Children, more than 47,000 children and their families citywide would lose access to the programs if cut. And adding to year-after-year of cuts, the latest proposal would result in 90,000 fewer children having access to the programs compared to 2009 – a 61 percent decrease.
In Queens, OST currently runs 83 programs. Unless the cuts are restored, those programs would be cut to 51. Cutting the two Beacon programs in the borough would affect more than 2,400 children.
“At this point we’re choosing between needy children and needy children,” said Katherine Eckstein, director of public policy at The Children’s Aid Society and a member of the Campaign for Children. “Given that Mayor Bloomberg has championed education so much, there’s a disconnect with these cuts.”
After the rally, groups of children and their mentors continued to chant, an indication that they won’t give up without a fight.
“They are very optimistic and enthusiastic,” said Lorraine O’Connell a counselor at Beacon 190. “We’re hoping that all the Beacons on the list have a fighting chance, and we do because we’ll keep fighting. We have way too many kids in our program to let it shut down so easily.”
One parent, Warren Fink, whose daughter Miriam also attends the J.H.S 190 Beacon, said the program has allowed her to make friends and offers a place to be active every day since her gym class in school was cut to one day a week.
“I’m a single parent. She lost her mom five years ago and this program is like her mother,” said the Forest Hills resident. “How do you tell your 10 year old, ‘I’m really sorry, but you lost your mother again?’”