BIDDEFORD, Maine — After school on a normal weekday, about 25 children make artwork, do their homework, play on a computer and have fun in general at the Joyful Harvest Neighborhood Center.
But after Dec. 31, that safe haven for children, which provided summer and after-school programs, will be no more.
After 11 years, the doors will be closing at Joyful, as it’s known by those who attend the program, once and for all.
“It was a hard decision,” said the nonprofit organization’s Executive Director Shay Stewart-Bouley, but “this decision was a long time coming.”
In the spring, Joyful sent out a community appeal asking for donors, without which they would no longer be able to stay open. Funds were raised to keep the organization open through the summer and to start the after-school program in the fall.
But “it was a month-to-month struggle,” said Stewart-Bouley.
Last month, when she announced her decision to take a new position as executive director of Community Change Inc. in Boston, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Joyful’s board of directors couldn’t find anyone to fill her position, since it cannot afford to pay a market-rate salary.
“It’s disgraceful that programs like these can’t get adequate funding,” said the city’s Health and Welfare Director Vicky Edgerly. As a society, “we make really bad choices to cut programs to catch these kids when they’re young, to give them some hope.”
Located in a neighborhood where 35 percent of the children live at or below the poverty level, the closure of Joyful will be a loss to the children and families who depend on the organization as a safe haven that provides after-school programs, adult supervision and snacks, said Stewart-Bouley.
She said she hopes others will “step up” to fill the need in Joyful Harvest’s absence.
“In 2001, when Joyful Harvest first opened its doors as a community center, there were few choices for safe and accessible programming for local youth,” wrote Stewart-Bouley, in a community letter notifying people about Joyful’s imminent closure. “That is no longer the case,” she wrote, “as some larger agencies have moved into the area to serve youth.”
She said she has reached out to some other organizations in Biddeford that serve youth, in hopes that they will be able to fill the void.
While the after-school program will end in about two months, the organization won’t shut down entirely. The Joyful Harvest Board of Directors plan to continue with two popular programs that are low-cost and depend only on volunteers to run. These include The Kid’s Shopping and Pancake Event, where children and youth can pick out donated gifts for the holidays, and the Back to School Supply Drive, where eligible students receive supplies for the new school year.
Stewart-Bouley added that support is still needed so the after-school program can continue through the end of the year.