On a blustery Thursday afternoon, about a hundred children and supervisors gathered outside the Children’s Aid Society at the Dunlevy Milbank Center in Harlem, waving colorful banners in preparation for the “Lights on Afterschool” march to protest city cuts to afterschool programs. This is the third year that the society has organized this march after its afterschool program began experiencing cuts in 2009. Since 2009, afterschool programs citywide have lost 50,000 slots.
This was the first year that children in the afterschool program at the Milbank center took part in organizing and participating in the march, and their chant of “What do we want? Afterschool! When do we want it? Now!” echoed down the sidewalk as they marched down Eighth Avenue from 118th Street to the State Office Building at 125th Street.
“This is the first time that the kids have come out,” said Lermond Mayes, a representative for Councilwoman Inez Dickens. “When you see the kids protesting, you can see how dire the situation really is.” Mayes also spoke at the protest.
The Children’s Aid Society, which runs a free afterschool program at the Dunlevy Milbank Center, has 225 children enrolled. This year, the center lost four afterschool slots due to budget cuts. Though the recent cut may seem trivial, Tracey Fuller, whose 9-year-old daughter is enrolled in the program, said that the center has a waiting list of about a hundred children.
“A lot of school programs here have been cut, and parents need to work and know their children are in a safe and productive environment,” she said. Fuller’s daughter attends Central Park East Elementary School, a school that doesn’t provide an afterschool program.
Angel Jackson, 14, has been coming to Milbank’s afterschool program for the past five years. He lives with a foster family, and his foster mother works long hours at a hospital. Before he attended the program, he said he used to get into a lot of trouble.
“I don’t know where I’d be if I wasn’t in the program — in jail or juvie I guess,” Angel said. “The program lets me go out into the world and show them what I’ve got.”
In light of the recent public school budget cuts that eliminated many low-wage employees who worked closely with children, the director of the center, Casper Lassiter, said the march was especially important this year.
“Based on the economic climate, the government needs to know that what’s going on in the city hurts entire families,” Lassiter said. “They need our services.”
For Angel, an afterschool program has meant the development of aspirations beyond Harlem.
“The program has helped me get out of my comfort zone,” he said. “I want to go to college, get a job, and get enough money to travel around the world.”
As the children reached their final destination under the awning of the State Office Building, Mayes asked the crowd to chant louder.
“Let’s make sure your councilwoman hears you,” Mayes yelled. “She’s right upstairs looking out the window!”