Parents and families who have their children enrolled at the Boys & Girls Club of Ottawa County will no longer have to worry about after-school transportation issues.

MIAMI— Parents and families who have their children enrolled at the Boys & Girls Club of Ottawa County will no longer have to worry about after-school transportation issues.

Mackenzie Garst, the new executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Ottawa County, implemented an efficient plan to get the children to the club safely after school.

The children will now be picked up at what is known as the “Bus Hub,” which is located between Will Rogers Middle School and Nichols Upper Elementary. It’s a road between the two schools where all of the buses in the district pick up students.

“All of the kids get bussed to the ‘Bus Hub’ from all of the buildings," Garst said. "Then, they get off of those buses and go to their buses that they go home on.

"Once we learned there was a ‘Bus Hub,’ we decided to send our Boys & Girls Club van to the hub and then pick our club kids up and come back," she added. "We learned that this is what a lot of daycare centers do in the area. We are driving there every day after school to pick them up and bringing them back here.”

Due to state budget cuts to education, Miami Public Schools had to make reductions to its transportation department at the beginning of the school year and eliminated the bus route that was dropping the children off at the club at the end of the school day.

“Essentially, it cut the transportation that our kiddos have from school to here,” Garst said. “Because our program is so important for parents to ensure their kids have a safe place to go after school, when the transportation issue came up, it was really discouraging.”

The transportation cuts not only affected the schools and the students, but it also affected the club. According to Garst, the transportation dilemma caused the club to lose at least 50 percent of its children.

“It was a dramatic drop in attendance,” Garst said. “I came in after Melissa Moore left and was discouraged that there was only a handful of kids here at the Miami unit because this is an important program to the community and I had to figure out how to fix the problem.”

After contemplating solutions, Garst approached the Boys & Girls Club Board about possible ways to transport the children from school. One of her goals after taking the position as executive director was to increase the club’s numbers.

“I think the board was surprised that there might have been such a cost-effective and easy fix to the problem,” Garst said. “I guess we weren’t aware as an organization that most of the kids in the district are bussed to the ‘Bus Hub.'”

The new transportation arrangement officially began last week. Garst said the main motivation behind her idea was to provide a safe place for the children after school and to help relieve the burden on parents and families.

“If we had the means to get kids here, then we should look at those options,” Garst said. “We’re only driving four miles a day. We’re not taking on lots of added expense and we re-arranged staff to drive and pick up the kids.”

Garst said parents are grateful for the club's new pick-up and drop-off system.

“We have lots of kiddos who really enjoy their time here, and one parent has said, ‘My kid has asked every single day when they can return to the Boys & Girls Club.’ To be able to provide that service to families and kids in the area, it’s truly an honor for us, and we’re excited to have them back at the club.”

During the transportation cuts, parents had to accommodate their schedules to drop their children off at the club. Children were riding different bus routes that were closer to the club and walking a block over. Others were having to attend another after-school facility.

“We had parents who took their lunch break later in the day and go pick their kids up from school,” Garst said. “They would carpool kids, too, so they might pick up five different kids at their son’s school and bring them to us, which really showed us how important the club was to these families. Their kids want to be in the club, so they were going to make it happen, which further proves how important the club is to this community.”

Angie Andras is a mother of three children who have been attending the club for approximately three years. As a parent working a full-time job, the transportation shortage was hectic and overwhelming.

“I was actually pretty upset,” Andras said. “Our hours here, we work until 8:30 a.m. until 7 p.m., and I don’t have anyone to rely on. I have another girl that I work with who goes to the Boys & Girls Club, as well. She and I were having to switch dates and get our kids.”

Andras said it was quite a relief to have the transportation issue resolved and have her children picked up from school.

“It helped out a lot, and now we don’t have to stress about having to get them,” Andras said. “My kids actually love being picked up by the bus because it makes them feel important, so this really helps big time.”

The Boys & Girls Club has unit locations in Miami, Fairland and Commerce with approximately 150 members total. Garst said she aspires to get the children more involved with area tribes and to teach them about Native American history.

"It's my goal to incorporate the native culture into our programming," Garst said. "I'd really like to see us work with the tribes and to highlight each of their individualities and uniqueness within Northeast Oklahoma.

"We serve native kids within our clubs," she added. "A good percentage of the kids that we serve are native, and I think it's important to highlight their culture, foods, customs and traditions. I would really like to focus on that in the next year and build that relationship with the tribes, so we can highlight within our club all of the great things that they're doing."

The club offers Education and Career Programs, Character and Leadership Programs, Health and Life Skills, The Arts Programs and Sports/Fitness and Recreation Programs. The club also participates in “Power Hour,” which gives the children an opportunity to work on homework or classwork.

“This is a structured program, and it's very intentional,” Garst said. “It's ensuring that kids graduate high school and have the positive support system that they need to succeed. The last thing we want is kiddos going home and sitting in an empty house until their parents get home.”

The organization utilizes a program called “SMART Moves” that teaches young people ages 6 to 15 in age appropriate ways to say no by involving them in discussion and role-playing, practicing resistance and refusal skills, developing assertiveness, strengthening decision-making skills and analyzing media and peer influence.

The club also promotes the program “Triple Play,” a comprehensive health and wellness program. It is developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and strives to improve the overall health of club members ages 6 to 18 by increasing their daily physical activity, teaching them good nutrition and helping them develop healthy relationships.

The organization works on a sliding scale membership fee schedule, and the organization does not turn away any child for their inability to pay. For more information, call the Boys & Girls Club at 918-540-1641.

Kimberly W. Barker is a staff writer for the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at kbarker@miaminewsrecord.com. Follow her on Twitter @MiamiNews_hound