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SAFE Parks keeps kids out of trouble

Children work on a craft project at a SAFE Parks booth at this year's Energy & Wellness Expo. (Anna Erickson / Enterprise)

The SAFE Parks program needs to close a $4,000 funding gap to continue serving kids throughout the summer.

The SAFE Parks - Safe and Fun Environment - program offers a variety of activities for children of all ages.

"It's really geared toward those latchkey kids," said Nicole Opsal, Child Abuse Advocate for Headwaters Intervention Center. "We want to provide a safe place for these kids who don't have supervision."

Headwaters Intervention Center hosts the program, which is entering its 14th season. Volunteers are on hand every day to provide a safe, chaperoned environment outdoors.

The proposed SAFE Parks schedule is from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at Heartland Park in Park Rapids and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at Akeley's Beach Park. It will start June 18 and end Aug. 17 depending on funding.

Organizers are looking to add an option to provide a healthy free lunch option. In addition, there will be weekly scavenger hunts, guest speakers, arts and crafts, volleyball and other sports activities.

The program could be scaled back if a funding gap of about $4,000 isn't met, Opsal said.

"Some of our large donors weren't able to step forward this year and we're in need of filling that gap," she said.

SAFE Parks relies entirely on donations.

"It would be such a shame to see any part of the program go away," Opsal said.

It improves the lives of children in the community who may not have the opportunity to participate in the activities, provides a place for children to play safely and offers educational opportunities in an interactive setting, a newsletter about the program states.

Kids are utilizing the SAFE Parks program. In 2011, the program served about 1,565 children.

Unsupervised youth are more likely to commit crimes, be victims of crimes or experiment with alcohol or drugs. Because of this, Opsal and other staff at Headwaters Intervention Center think the program is needed more than ever in the community.

"There are a lot more kids who are left at home alone in the summer because daycare is expensive," Opsal said. "And many or the after school programs that they might have been involved in aren't available in the summer."

SAFE Parks is a free program for all kids from ages 8 to 16 years old. Children ages 7 and under must be accompanied by adults.

Opsal also hopes to do some outreach to some of the older kids this summer as she starts an initiative called the Youth Empowerment Project.

"The goal is to be a guide for youth and engage them by teaching them real life skill building," Opsal said. "We'll be learning how to write a resume, attend City Council meetings, see how they can be a part of the community."

As the project continues Opsal sees it as an opportunity for prevention.

"Kids who are more engaged in the community are less likely to do drugs, become pregnant," she said.

For more information about the SAFE Parks program or Youth Empowerment Project, or to donate, call the Headwaters Intervention Center at 732-7413.

Anna Erickson
Anna Erickson is editor of the Wadena Pioneer Journal.
(218) 631-2561