ELIZABETH A. CONKEY, Staff Writer
SHAFTSBURY -- The Shaftsbury After School Program continues to provide local students with fun and educational opportunities under new leadership this year.
Two Shaftsbury women, Megan Donckers and Jessica Smith, have taken over the program this year and now serve as co-directors.
Donckers, a professional volunteer, says her specialty lies in the creative aspect of the endeavor, while Smith, a lawyer, handles the finances and legal matters, while also serving as a recruiter for new activities and a field trip chaperone.
According to Donckers, approximately 90 Shaftsbury Elementary students, kindergarten through sixth grade, are enrolled in the program, which has seen tremendous growth since its inception.
"We've really expanded this year," she said, explaining that additional funding received by the program was made possible by applying for a non-profit status.
"We were worried about having to rely completely on the community for funds," Donckers said. "We've been able to apply for grants and have had so many financial opportunities this way."
Donckers went on to explain the simple mission of the Shaftsbury After School program, which is staffed primarily of volunteers.
"The sole purpose of the program is to expose students to opportunities that they wouldn't normally have," she said.
Donckers explained that the Shaftsbury After School Program, unlike most other after school programs, is organized in sessions -- three six-week sessions and one four-week session, to be exact, with the cost for each class within the sessions set at $15.
The activities and classes, whose topics vary and include everything from science to gardening, to art and music, are offered every day after school.
Parents and children are able to view a calendar listing the activities and then choose the ones in which they will participate.
A tennis program at the Bennington Tennis Center, in which 23 students are currently enrolled, seems to be a favorite, according to Donckers.
"We have lots of kids that are super excited about it," she said. "Some have even started to play tennis with their parents on the weekends."
Local artist Mary Migliozzi-Chambers has been hired to teach recycled art classes to students as well, Donckers said. The class will continue throughout the six-week session, and an upcoming field trip to Foley Farm has also drawn enthusiasm.
"Kids will get to tour the farm and plant garlic," Donckers explained.
Students have also enjoyed participating in what is being called the, "Pet Pals" program, a once-weekly animal care class taught by Dare Meunier of Second Chance Animal Shelter in Bennington.
"Her class is so popular that we've offered it again next session and it's already full," said Donckers.
The co-director also noted the importance of the program's transportation aspect, which, she said, is a strong selling point to working parents.
"Green Mountain Express buses our students to the tennis center and on all of our field trips and to activities in the community," she said. "Transportation is really key. If we don't supply transportation, a lot of these kids wouldn't be able to participate in the activities we offer as they're off-site."
Donckers said the program has also extended its hours over the years to run through 5 p.m. so that parents avoid having to leave work early to pick up their children.
Donckers added that keeping the program affordable has been and will continue to be a priority of hers and Smith's going forward.
In an effort to absorb costs, Donckers said the program runs four fundraisers every year, including a Christmas wreath fundraiser, with help from local farmer Fritz Ludwig, and a springtime bottle drive in honor of Earth Day.
"We're really trying to have the school and the community become one," she said, voicing her hope to bridge the gap between Shaftsbury residents who may not have children in school with students and other local families.
Shaftsbury Elementary Principal Jeff Johnson noted that his students really seem to enjoy the program.
"It's just phenomenal," he said. "Megan has really reached out and found creative activities for the kids and has great energy. I think the students really love the variety."
Donckers said the program's next session, which begins on Nov. 11, would include twice-weekly visits from Oldcastle Theatre for improvisation workshops as well as classes at the One World Conservation Center.
"They've agreed to work with us at a very reasonable rate to create an outdoor education curriculum," she said of the latter. "It's so nice -- I call people (in the community) and they are excited to help and be a part of this."
Donckers hopes to grow the program more in the coming years, with an ultimate goal of running it out of its own facility, every day after school, instead of in sessions, maybe even outside of Shaftsbury.
In an effort to achieve this goal, Donckers said she is currently enrolled in a non-profit management class being offered locally by Marlboro College at Bennington's Meals on Wheels Café.
"By doing this, we can really build the non-profit and have a strong infrastructure," she said.
Donckers and her partner may have grand plans for the future, but Donckers said that at the end of the day, the program is "totally about the kids."
"I love what I do," she said. "I love seeing how excited the kids get when they're fully engrossed in something they love. It's really cool."
Contact Elizabeth A. Conkey at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @bethconkey.