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Local youth line up Tuesday to get snacks at Kids Club, a child care program in La Grande. Without funding, the program will close in early June.

LA GRANDE — The sounds of children playing and laughing have reverberated daily from this three-story brick building at 2609 Second St. for the past 130 years.

Soon this joyful daily clamor may be an echo of the past at the Riveria Activity Center.

Kids Club, a certified child care center with education features, run at Riveria by Community Connection of Northeast Oregon, is set to close June 2. Community Connection's board of directors has voted to discontinue it for financial reasons.

"It was a very difficult decision," said Margaret Davidson, executive director of Community Connection. "We love the program. It (the closure) is sad but the money is not there."

On the bright side, La Grande Parks and Recreation director Stu Spence said Wednesday morning the city will be looking into ways in which it might be able to meet the needs the closure of Kids Club will produce.

Community Connection started Kids Club in 1995, and it has operated at the Riveria Activity Center since 2002. Davidson said Kids Club has been running at a deficit the past three or four years, primarily because it has been unable to obtain large grants from community foundations that it once did. The Ford Family Foundation, the Collins Foundation and the Oregon Community Foundation are among the foundations that have supported Kids Club in a big way during much of its history.

Kids Club also has suffered from declining attendance in recent years.

The program served 241 individual children at its peak in the 2007-2008 fiscal year, and since then attendance has steadily dropped. Kids Club served a total of 172 individual children in 2016-17, 116 in 2017-18 and 96 in 2018-19. Kids Club has had 61 individual children attend during the fiscal year that started July 1, 2019 and runs to June 30. Few of these children were one-time drop-ins. The average child attended Kids Club about 160 hours a year, according to Community Connection statistics.

Families on average pay between $2-$3 an hour per child to attend Kids Club.  

Several circumstances may have hurt attendance, Thomas said, including La Grande School District's switch from half day to full day kindergarten in 2015, which reduced parents need for child care. The school district in 2006 also moved all sixth graders from elementary schools to the La Grande Middle School. Once at the middle school, Thomas said, many sixth graders perceived themselves as too old to attend Kids Club.

Kids Club, which has operated year-round, is now open to children age 5 to 12 each school day from 7-8:30 a.m. and 2:30-5:30 p.m. Children play games in Riveria's gym, get meals and snacks, participate in education activities, including painting and science, technology, engineering and math. The youth also can do homework in classrooms while receiving tutoring from Kids Club instructors.

The club's staff includes Janine Thomas, who has been with the program for the past 16 years, the last 11 as its director.

"This is one of the greatest jobs I have had," Thomas said. "It has been a great joy. Every day is different."

Thomas said some children like the program so much that after they get too old for it, they come back in different capacities. One 13-year-old came back to work as a volunteer and another was hired to be a Kids Club teacher. 

Thomas said children attending Kids Club sessions in the afternoon have a lot of pent-up vigor.

"They have a lot of energy because they have been sitting behind desks all day," she said. 

Children coming in the morning are a bit more subdued.

"They are sleepy heads," Thomas said. 

She said it was hard to accept the news that Kids Club is closing.

"I do not want it to go away," she said. 

Davidson said for Kids Club needs an additional $75,000 in 2020-21 to continue running past June. Davidson said the possibility of donors coming forward with that much funding is remote, but she is not giving up hope.

"I'm an optimist. I always think the glass is half full," Davidson said.

General assignment reporter

Beats include the communities of North Powder, Imbler, Island City and Union, education, Union County veterans programs and local history. Dick joined The Observer in 1983, first working as a sports and outdoors reporter.

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