HOLYOKE, Mass. (WWLP) – Since the school year has begun, after-school programs across western Massachusetts are amplifying student knowledge and social interactions.

After an afterschool and out-of-school time state-competitive grant was released from the state, the criteria of programs are improved based on certain guidelines from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).

The Holyoke and South Hadley YMCA has begun its after-school program, in partnership with Holyoke Public Schools, Mater Dolorosa Catholic School, and South Hadley Public Schools. 22News spoke to Holyoke YMCA School Age Director, Gabriel Maldonado on what is being done to better their criteria and enhance student academic success.

A literacy specialist, Jenny McGovern has been brought in to do arts and crafts activities. One activity enabled students to scrap pictures and piece together a story. The program also provides help with homework.

Relationship building has also been acknowledged. “Starts with our staff, they teach the kids about trust and it turns into relationships with peers, and hopefully we can enhance that relationship where they can take it further,” expressed Maldonado. “Social support has become a huge contribution to a student’s academic success.”

In addition to bettering students’ academic lives, their health is also being improved. Kenneth Rivera, coordinator of team programming has introduced catch training that engages large groups in more active activities. “We really want to just get them moving, their heart pumping, and get them active,” said Rivera. He also mentioned that nutrition facts are also shared during snack times and cooking activities. Through gym games, students are also taught why it is important to be active.

22News spoke with a parent who has been actively involved with the after-school program. Jessica Ojeda of South Hadley has two six-year-old twins, Julius and Juliana who attend Plain School in South Hadley. “They are loving it. We are so happy that the Holyoke YMCA provides these programs, my son is autistic and has been learning so much and interacting with other kids in the program,” said Ojeda. The Holyoke YMCA location has been growing individual growth, self-discipline, independence, and self-confidence for children with autism.

Juliana and Julius second day at YMCA after-school program. Courtesy of Holyoke YMCA/ Plain School South Hadley.

Maldonado has an autistic child himself and finds it important to create a routine and space, where they are trying new things, but also pulling themselves away when they need a safe space. He finds it important to keep a partnership with not only the schools but the families as well.

The program has benefited her son Julius, who receives Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy at home during summer school vacation. When Ojeda asked a YMCA staff member if his ABA therapist can make some visits to the camp they subtly agreed to it and will allow him to attend field trips. “I was very happy that the program can accommodate that,” Ojeda said.  When Julius’ therapist visited just to see how he was doing, they told Ojeda that he was interacting well with the kids.

Ojeda told 22News how she found this program. “During my search for an after-school program, I learn that the Holyoke YMCA was running a program out of the South Hadley plain school, that offered what I was searching for my twins. I quickly jumped on the opportunity to enroll my kids in the program,” Ojeda expressed. “The staff at the YMCA made it so easy and answered all my questions, especially making me feel great about having my son that is autistic in the program so far all is going great, keeping my kids active.”

If a student makes mistakes along the way, Maldonado says, “I think the most important thing is teaching them that failure is ok, it’s how you bounce back from it.” Maldonado adds how core values help to shape YMCA’s after-school program like caring, honesty, respect, and responsibility. Programs like these are to support the idea of inclusion and furthering a child’s education.