By Adam Hocking
MARSHFIELD — Youth Net began in 1989 in response to a spike in the frequency of teen pregnancy, said Randy Neve, a manager at the Marshfield Clinic Center for Community Outreach, which operates the program.
“Now through time it’s evolved because we felt that to best meet the needs of the kids, we felt that it needed to evolve into a program that saw kids a lot, every day basically, and provided them a lot of academic support; personal, social development; and healthy, active living,” Neve said.
Youth Net is an after school program for students and also operates from 12-5 p.m. weekdays while summer school is in session. The program occupies classrooms at Sacred Heart Church on South Central Avenue in Marshfield.
When the program began, Neve said, it served about 30 children annually, but it now serves about 300. Students at Youth Net range from ages 8 to 18, and the program receives referrals from school guidance counselors about which children might benefit most from its services.
“They can see which kids would benefit from having additional academic support or some social, emotional development or maybe just be in a safe, supervised place after school,” said Jennifer Smith, a health educator and team leader of the Youth Net program. She added that social services, Personal Development Center, and occasionally physicians also refer children to Youth Net.
Smith said that programming for the day begins with a snack, followed by 15 minutes of recreational time provided by the YMCA, and then students have academic time where they can receive help with their homework. The remainder of the day is spent on various activities that multiple organizations in the community coordinate. The library has brought Legos for the students to play with, there is an art room, a knitting club, a computer coding club, and open gym time is also available.
Youth Net has a healthy lifestyles component in which students can have their body mass index (BMI) measured. Students who fall above the recommended range for their BMI are invited by their pediatricians to participate in an educational program about healthy living. A registered nurse will come to Youth Net every week to meet with the students participating in the program. The nurse will talk about healthy eating and portion size and sets goals with participants. The program involves the students’ families as well. A nurse can talk to the parents about healthy habits they can incorporate at home.
Part of the enrollment process for Youth Net also requires that program organizers meet with every family of each student in the program.
“We really work to kind of facilitate that relationship,” Smith said. She added that the program requires parents to come into the building to pick their children up each day. “We develop relationships with the families because we see them on a daily basis coming in to get their kids.”
Throughout the day 18 mentors work hands-on with the students. The mentors are generally high school- or college-aged employees, Smith said. Five members of AmeriCorps also assist the program. Case managers from the Marshfield Clinic Center for Community Outreach develop learning plans for each student and collaborate with teachers and parents to provide the most beneficial environment for each child.
Neve said that the Center for Community Outreach developed Youth Net’s programming with the Department of Public Instruction. He added that meeting students’ educational, social/emotional, and health and wellness needs are the main areas of focus for the program. There is no charge for students to attend Youth Net.
The summer program is more focused on recreation than academics because the students do not have the homework load like they do during the school year.
Smith said that the main challenge of running the program is that it is a “dynamic, living, breathing, entity that’s ever-changing, and you’re dealing with kids, so I think some of the challenges are just keeping everything running on time as planned.” She added that with so many people involved in implementing the program, keeping every person on the same page is another difficulty. Neve added that having enough space for all the students has been a struggle, and the program currently has a waiting list.
“Actually, some of the challenges are also part of what makes it fun, that it is not a static, everyday same routine: I go to work. I do my job. I go home,” Smith said. “We kind of joke because we say, ‘You never know what’s going to happen when you show up at Youth Net.’”