EPIC program is all about after-school fun

Program offers kids a place to go Wednesdays

By Jacques Von Lunen, Columbian staff writer

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Learn more about East Park Impact Center at www.totallyepic.org.

Shortly before 1 p.m. Wednesday, five kids spilled out of a dark-blue van into East Park Church on Northeast 18th Street. They came racing into the wing of the church building and spread out across the game room.

Two boys settled in at the small bank of computers set up along one wall. Before they fired up the games they wanted to play, the two activated a timer.

They were allowed 15 minutes at the screens.

But despite that tight limit on their video-game time, Reyes Sanchez and Ryan Blaize, both 11, come here every Wednesday and will continue to do so, they said. Like most of the kids here, they’ve made friends, had fun and found a safe and sociable way to spend the long Wednesday afternoons.

The East Park Impact Center -- or EPIC -- has become a haven for a small group of kids during the Evergreen school district’s early-release Wednesday. The center currently offers about 25 students a chance to play, learn and build relationships in a structured environment. Many of the students come from difficult backgrounds, but the nonprofit’s efforts appear to have helped them overcome some challenges.

EPIC started about two years ago, after a couple of parents read a story in The Columbian about the Rocksolid Community Teen Center in Battle Ground.

Kathi Rosumny, one of the parents, who now is the nonprofit group’s director, went to schools in east Vancouver and floated the idea of an after-school activity group. Over time, an organization was born, which includes school administrators and East Park Church members on its board.

EPIC receives no money from the school district. It uses the church’s room and van for free, but is otherwise independent of East Park Church. The group relies solely on donations to fulfill its mission, which is to keep kids out of trouble, basically. Parents pay a one-time $10 fee.

After getting organized and remodeling the church’s youth game room, EPIC took in its first group of kids in January 2011. Students mostly are recommended for the program by school counselors or principals, Rosumny said. But any fifth- to eighth-grader from a cluster of schools around the church can apply to join the play group.

The center serves kids from Burton, Harmony and Hearthwood elementary schools, as well as from Cascade and Pacific middle schools. Currently, about 20 students regularly come to the 12:30 to 5:30 p.m. meetings.

Youngsters from Hearthwood and Pacific come on the school bus, because the buses go right by the church anyway on their regular routes. Kids from the other schools are picked up in the church van. Parents fetch all of them at the end of the afternoon.

When the students first get in, they have time to relax and do what they want. On Wednesday, the two boys in the first group went to the computers and three girls huddled on sofas, talking and looking at their cellphones.

In the next two hours, as the various schools let out, more students joined them and played on the foosball and air hockey tables.

There’s quiet time built into the afternoon for homework or reading. And the group’s program director, Rob Williams, has a big block of games and activities planned out for them every week.

It can be a challenge to give the tweens and teens directions for tightly planned activities when they just got out of school, Williams said. Then again, on the rare occasion that he doesn’t have something all planned out they ask, “How come we’re not playing a game this week?” he said with a laugh.

Some of the kids are troublemakers at school. Some come from families living in poverty. Some have trouble building relationships.

But all of them appreciate structure, it seems.

One group of boys is rowdy and loud upon arrival each week, said Christina Ledesma, the site manager. They were handpicked by their principal, she said. But once they settle into the game room, they play nice and by the rules. And they seem to like it -- they came back after the last summer break.

“We give them discipline,” Ledesma said. “We have a behavior contract.”

One boy didn’t follow that contract a few months ago. Rosumny called his mother and told her he couldn’t come back if he didn’t adhere to the contract.

“She said he would be devastated, that he likes coming here,” Rosumny said. “The kids like the structure.”

The boy came back and has since been careful not to wear out his welcome.

Teachers have told the nonprofit that the one afternoon per week is having an impact on the students they serve. The kids seem to have more confidence at school, Rosumny said.

“They might struggle with building relationships at school,” she said. “But when they’re here, it’s small, it’s familiar and there are no cliques.”

On Wednesday, a volunteer taught some of the kids how to knit. Torrey Hair, who earlier said she’d never knitted before, joined in the fun. If there were no EPIC, she would probably just do homework on Wednesdays and then watch TV, she said.

The fifth-grader listed a string of sunny adjectives when trying to describe how the play group made her feel.

“Happy, excited, overjoyed,” she said.

She’s “most definitely” coming back next year, Torrey said.

“I feel safe here and you guys are nice,” the 11-year-old said, pointing at Ledesma and Rosumny.

“We love you, Torrey,” Rosumny responded.

“Thank you,” the young girl said. “I love you too.”

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4515; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com;http://www.twitter.com/col_schools.