Staff at the Southwest Community Center, as well as the families that rely on it, are outraged by the sudden suspension of the center’s OASAS Afterschool program.
By Za’Tozia Duffie
Afterschool programs provide a lifeline to working parents who need to bridge the time between when their kids get out of school and when they get out of work.
The OASAS program at Southwest Community Center (also known as Syracuse Community Connections) was just such a bridge for the parents on the South Side – until the center abruptly announced the temporary closing of the program last week. Parents and staff first got wind of the change via a letter posted to the center’s website on Sept. 19. There days later, on Friday, Sept. 22nd, OASAS held its last class.
That has left South Side parents scrambling and angry, and by Tuesday of this week, parents who relied on the program were joined by center staff as they protested outside of the center on South Avenue. They have been demanding answers from center CEO Lawrence Williams.
Williams has not responded to requests for comment from The Stand. “We deeply regret to inform you that our OASAS Afterschool Program will be placed on-hold,” the letter states. “This has become necessary as we are in the process of hiring additional staff to assist in the development, quality, and safety of the program.” Williams told Syracuse.com that the state agency that funds the program has required the more robust staffing, requiring the change.
But staff and families say the program is too important to cancel on such short notice.
“The problem is that we currently have kids here who get bussed here from school,” said Lashonda Sullivan, the OASAS Drug Prevention Specialist. “They don’t have anywhere else to go and they depend on Southwest Community Center for dinner.”
Sullivan has deep roots at the center and knows what the children there face – she also attended Southwest Community Center as a child.
“This is crucial,” she said the center’s work. “You have kids who are going down the wrong path. I, myself, was going down a wrong path at one time in my life.”
Williams wrote that the program would resume sometime in mid-October after the center hires additional staff. An Instagram post sets the date at Oct. 23rd.
Sullivan is doubtful the center can pull it off, saying that low pay and the need for qualifications will make hiring appropriate personnel difficult.
Dekera Ogletree, whose kids attend the center and utilize the OASAS program, said the news of the afterschool program’s suspension was surprising, disheartening and part of what she sees as a trend among the center’s leadership. “They don’t know anything about the kids – their wants, their needs, who they are,” Ogletree said.
Like Sullivan, Ogletree also attended the Southwest Community Center and said it provided her with summer employment opportunities and useful training as a teenager. Ogletree said her children have not received the same experience. Job opportunities and training that were once an intrinsic part of the center’s offerings have been cut.
Sullivan added that the center used to serve students ages 5 to 18 but that it has cut programs for teenagers and that few currently utilize the facility. Parents like Ogletree wonder if this is due to the fear of the older children.
Sullivan said that when she brought these concerns to Williams, he asked Sullivan to “keep the peace.” Sullivan worries for the center’s future. “Unfortunately,” she said, “we only have this center on this side of town (and) it’s getting run into the ground.”
Former county legislator Vernon Williams Jr. was present at a protest held at the center Tuesday. He recalled the days when he attended the center as an adolescence. Now, Williams Jr. wants to hear from the center’s leadership.
“What do you need?” he asked. “If you have funding issues, then say that. If you have difficulty hiring people then say that to the parents so there can be transparency in communication on what’s going on.”