June 07, 2002 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

For Diane Partridge, who sometimes spends long days in the field, Kids Club is a lifesaver.

"My options are limited," said the single mom. "Cost is a concern."

Partridge, who works at the Oregon Department of Forestry, praised the quality of care offered her 10-year-old son, Robert, by the non-profit center.

Kids Club is in trouble. Participation is down from last year's total of more than 40 to as low as nine children in a day. The center accepts children in the first through the sixth grades.

"Is Kids Club important enough to continue?" asked Margaret Davidson, director of Community Connection, Kids Club's parent organization.

The two parents who attended a public information meeting earlier this week said that for them, the after-school day care program is essential.

Nine agency and school employees who participated in the meeting agreed, but said the Kids Club needs to address the problems that apparently are keeping people away.

Foremost among them are location and transportation, many participants said. Until last year, Kids Club occupied the basement at Willow Elementary School and children were taken by school bus from their respective schools to Willow.

Last year, when Willow ended the agreement, the after-school program moved to Valley Fellowship at the former National Guard Armory and lost free school bus transportation for its clients.

To get to Kids Club, children must first go by school bus to Riveria School, where they transfer to a Community Connection bus for the ride to Valley Fellowship. The wait for the buses can be as long as 30 minutes, said Charlotte McLaughlin, Willow School principal.

Most of those attending the information session agreed that the Kids Club must find a more central location, preferably in a public school. McLaughlin, though, said the schools are "maxed out" and have no space to spare.

Another suggestion was to use the Union County Senior Center for day care. Davidson, however, said sharing the center has been attempted in the past "and it just doesn't work out."

During the past three years, Kids Club has competed with a free after-school program offered by elementary schools in La Grande. Community Connection Chairman Steve McClure, though, said Kids Club enrollment did not drop until the organization was asked to leave Willow School.

Next year may be a different story, because the three-year grant that funded the after-school program has expired, and school officials have not decided its future.

With the close of school, enrollment at Kids Club is expected to increase for the summer, when its hours are 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. During those months, a dormant Kids Club Advisory Committee will be revived to search for a building and

find a solution to the transportation