The FamilyMeans youth development program in Lake Elmo’s Cimarron Park is not your traditional day-care center. Nor is it an extension of the school day. Maybe that’s why children and teens who live in the mobile home community keep going back.

The program, set up by the Stillwater nonprofit agency, provides local children and teens, many of whom come from low-income households, with free and educational after-school and summer programs. It’s been so popular that today, six years after it started under a tent on a nearby ball field, space is so tight that the children’s room can barely contain the kids and all of its books, toys, computers and supplies.

With demand for the program growing, FamilyMeans broke ground in September on a 4,400-square-foot building to open in January next to its current location. The $1.2 million project is being funded by more than a half-dozen foundations and individual donors.

“FamilyMeans will now be able to expand on the programs they provide and develop new programs that will better the lives of the kids in Cimarron Park, their families, and the greater community as well,” said Tom Yuska, who founded the agency’s youth programs 20 years ago.

About 300 school-aged children live in Cimarron Park, just north of Lake Elmo’s border with Woodbury. Of that group, 125 — about 85 percent of whom qualify for free- or reduced-price school lunches — are enrolled in the FamilyMeans program, which aims to give children and teens opportunities to grow emotionally, connect with trusted adults and area resources and contribute to the broader community, Yuska said.

Program leaders say adding space also will allow more children and teens to enroll and participate. The new building will be equipped with a commercial kitchen for preparing food and will feature activity rooms and “quiet” rooms for children and teens relaxing or doing homework.

“We’re thrilled to partner with FamilyMeans to bring programs that will benefit the community’s kids both academically and socially,” said Kate Yunke, property manager for the park, which is owned by Equity LifeStyle Properties Inc. of Chicago.

Equity LifeStyle allows FamilyMeans to operate rent-free in the basement of the building that houses the mobile home park’s management office. The company is charging the organization $1 per year in a 30-year lease for the new building’s land.

As a winter chill blew across Lake Elmo earlier this month, construction crews were busy raising the frame of the new building, just a short walk from FamilyMeans’ current location.

The scene was quite a contrast to summer 2008, when FamilyMeans started its program in Cimarron. That first day, 35 kids showed up.

Since then, the program has operated in 900 square feet in the basement of Equity Lifestyle’s office and clubhouse.

It’s a busy place.

On a recent afternoon, a gaggle of rosy-cheeked boys raced from their school buses to the children’s room, where they stuffed their backpacks into cubbyholes. Younger children doffed their jackets and headed straight for a long table, where Jaime Staska, the children’s program coordinator, had spread a coloring sheet. Others excitedly launched into a video game. Staska gave them all some free time before calling for order.

“Give me five, four, three, two, one, zero. All eyes on me, please,” she said, folding one finger for each number until her hand closed.

Staska then asked those who were interested in the day’s activity — nutrition — to sign their names on a chalkboard. Some kids had a hard time settling down to listen, and hijinks ensued.

“Wrestling is not allowed here, because it’s a little bit of a dangerous activity,” Staska reminded them, prompting a few boys to chuckle.

After Staska finished the day’s announcements, one of the teen workers escorted some children outside to play. A 12-year-old girl, who has attended the program since it began, sat at a table in the teen room, puzzling with a friend over how to insert a bobbin into a sewing machine.

The seventh-grader, who said sewing is her favorite activity, said she has sewn an iPad case and learned how to sew a buttonhole.

As part of the program mission, Cimarron teens have made blankets for hospitalized children, volunteered at Feed My Starving Children, and worked as assistants to Staska and teen program coordinator Katie Fisher in a partnership with FamilyMeans and the Washington County Workforce Center.

“It is often their first job,” Yuska said. “It’s kind of a good introductory job for them because they know the environment, they know the program [and] how it works, so they are not going into a foreign situation.”

Teen staffers also have taken peers to visit local colleges. A young man who attended the FamilyMeans program in Landfall before enlisting in the Army and serving in Iraq stopped at Cimarron to speak to others interested in military service. Staska has taken younger children to visit with elderly residents who participate in a caregiver support program.

Other adults visit Cimarron on a regular basis to teach art, drama, dance, gymnastics and sewing, all in an effort to help kids tap their interests and develop skills. During the summer, they can play soccer and take swimming lessons in the community’s pool.

Staska, who has been with the Cimarron program since its inception, has enjoyed watching many of the kids grow and mature. Some have gone on to jobs, others to college. Some have become accomplished gymnasts. Many have found their own voice, including one teen who spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new building.

“That’s a really neat thing to do, to see someone like that … really grow into her personality,” Staska said. “It’s been quite a privilege to be able to see them grow and develop. Development is the goal, after all.”

 

Nancy Crotti is a Twin Cities freelance writer