One of Austin’s youth outreach agencies will have a few extra dollars in its bank account to provide services to the community, thanks to grant from a national faith-based organization.
Austin’s Kidz Express, a non-profit youth-based organization on Monday received a $75,000, 3-year grant from the Lutheran Services for Children Endowment of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The grant will be used to help provide youth life skills education.
Kidz Express, located at 342 S. Laramie, began in 1997 as a partnership with Austin Messiah Lutheran Church. Following the untimely death of Austin Messiah’s pastor, Good Shepherd became the sole supporting organization for Kidz Express.
Several members of the church, lead by Oak Park resident Warren King, started the program, which remains closely partnered with Good Shepherd Lutheran Church.
Last October marked the grand opening of the Kidz Express Community Center at its present location.
“When we first opened, we averaged 12-15 participants at its weekly gatherings, so it was a lot easier to fill the room set aside for the program at Good Shepherd,” said Kids Express President Duane Ehresman. “However, as time went on and we expanded to 60 kids a week and 120 kids total in the program, we realized we needed to relocate to a larger facility.”
Kidz Express meets Saturdays from 10 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon (or longer if there’s a field trip) for “Kids morning at the center” where the children can socialize, converse, eat and take part in group activities.
On Mondays the program meets for tutoring, where many of the younger children kindergarten through pre-teen meet to receive help with homework. Most of the students that volunteer as tutors are students of Oak Park and River Forrest High School.
“We felt that through the support of the church and some very dedicated volunteers we could have an impact in some of these kids’ lives who may not have the opportunity to take part in weekend activities or tutoring sessions,” said program vice president Doug Low.
On Wednesdays the program meets from 6 to 7:30 in the evening where teenagers take part in group discussions about self respect and finding their own spiritual path. Thursday evenings belong to youths aged 13 and older.
“By having a continuation of Teen night the following day volunteers can target programs toward specific age groups and concentrate on the unique needs of both our younger and older participants,” said Ehresman.
There are also select days designated for field trips once a month, from bowling to hiking at Starved Rock in Utica Illinois.
“We want the children to experience all there is beyond their immediate surroundings,” said Ehresman, who also takes the children to his brother’s farm in Iowa for the weekend. “We want them to see how much there is available to them outside of some of the negative influences that they might encounter in their daily lives.”
The new center allows for additional space, and the kids themselves took part in the choosing of the colors for each specialty room.
“There is a green room, a gray room and a pink room, the boys love that one,” said Treasurer Valerie Peiler, who met Ehresman, a contractor, four years ago while attending church services at Good Shepherd and began volunteering her time to the program. “Once Duane found the building the transition was rather easy.”
The children also have a poolroom, basketball court, a converted garage, and a computer room with Internet access. The program runs from September through June and on special occasions during July and August. For more information about Kidz Express, visit their web site at www.kidzexpress.org.