Governor touts after-school program

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  • First-grader Avynn Watkins decorates a cookie during an open house for the Lights on Afterschool rally at Bigfork Arts Community Education Sports on Tuesday. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 1

    Montana Governor Steve Bullock signs authographs for Bigfork Arts Community Education Sports students after the Lights on Afterschool awareness campaign in Bigfork on Tuesday. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

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    Students of Bigfork Arts Community Education Sports laugh as Five and Holding perform during the Lights on Afterschool rally in Bigfork on Tuesday. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

  • First-grader Avynn Watkins decorates a cookie during an open house for the Lights on Afterschool rally at Bigfork Arts Community Education Sports on Tuesday. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 1

    Montana Governor Steve Bullock signs authographs for Bigfork Arts Community Education Sports students after the Lights on Afterschool awareness campaign in Bigfork on Tuesday. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 2

    Students of Bigfork Arts Community Education Sports laugh as Five and Holding perform during the Lights on Afterschool rally in Bigfork on Tuesday. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

Bigfork ACES and Bigfork Playhouse Children’s Theatre kept the lights on for Gov. Steve Bullock to celebrate after-school programming on Tuesday.

The celebration was one of thousands scheduled this week as part of the Afterschool Alliance’s national “Lights on Afterschool” campaign. The campaign aims to raise awareness of the benefits of after-school programs that keep children engaged and safe during the hours when juvenile crime peaks in addition to providing relief to working families.

After-school programs such as Bigfork ACES provide help with homework, tutoring, educational activities, games and meals for children in a supervised environment.

Bigfork’s event kicked off with performances by Vocal Vertigo in addition to Five and Holding choirs directed by Brach Thomson of Bigfork Playhouse Children’s Theatre, followed by comments from Bullock.

“Both my wife and I, we couldn’t of made it without a solid after-school program,” Bullock said about when his children were young.

“What ACES does is provides those opportunities for parents, provides an enriching environment where kids can play, learn and hopefully enjoy yourselves and is a fun place to go after school.”

After Bullock’s statement, the children were eager to begin activities that included cookie decorating, making bouncy balls or playing “Yahtzee” outside.

Sixth-grader Json Merringer offered to give a tour of the Bigfork ACES building at 801 Grand Drive. He’s been attending after-school programming since kindergarten.

“This is the lunch table where we eat,” Merringer said, pointing to a long table where children were busy decorating sugar cookies. He then walked toward the back of the room. “This is an area where we can play games.”

Merringer explained that younger grades spend time in this building, while the middle school students have a new hangout within the Little Jon apartment complex up the road.

“We do homework, eat dinner and after that we have an activity,” Merringer said, noting that his favorite part of Bigfork ACES is the summer camp.

Bigfork ACES opened in 2012 with a 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

According to the Afterschool Alliance, there are 5,717 children served in these 21st Century Community Learning Centers in Montana. About 500 children are served by Bigfork ACES, whose network extends to Deer Park, Kila and Marion communities.

“We provide a safe place for kids,” said Cathy Hay, executive director of Bigfork ACES. “In rural communities kids don’t have a lot of after school activities other than sports. We want to provide a place to go where kids can get academic support and have fun.”

More than half of Bigfork ACES participants attend for free or are eligible for financial assistance based on family income, according to Hay.

“Kids need a safe place to go where parents aren’t burdened by fees and they get a healthy meal,” Hay said.

Hay noted that school administrators have reported to her that children who attend Bigfork ACES have improved academically by a grade level or higher in math. Hay said children make progress not just academically, but behaviorally.

“We work in really close collaboration with the schools,” Hay said.

In addition to the school district and children’s theater, Bigfork ACES partners with the Bigfork Art and Culture Center, ImagineIF libraries and has received support from the Community Foundation for a Better Bigfork.

For more information visit www.acesafterschool.com or www.acesafterschool.com.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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