Midtown Community Services is pretty much summed up by its name. Its services are for the community—a community made up of families. The daunting task of providing programming to families means there have to be programs to cover every age and interest.
Parents, for example, aren’t born knowing how to parent. To that end, Midtown Community Services offers parenting workshops to parents who want to know more about how to do their job. At the same time, the community center that’s more than a community center is serving children of all ages, not to mention their grandparents and in some cases great grandparents. Midtown Community Services knows that strengthening the family means strengthening every part of the family.
Our small grant award for this nonprofit, we feel sure, will only bring benefits to the children of Midtown, who after all, are its future. This is exactly the kind of work we like to support. We put some questions to Midtown Community Services Executive Director Barbara Schaefer and Youth Director Brittney Washington to learn more:
Kars4Kids: What can you tell us about the community you serve? What is your demographic?
Barbara Schaefer: Midtown Community Services serves every member of the family, from newborns to their great-grandparents, through our diverse line of programming. In 2022, we celebrated our 40th anniversary, and many of the families who started with us in 1982 are still with us today, bringing their own children and grandchildren to our programs!
Our goal is to build stronger families and stronger families in St. Louis. Most of the individuals we serve live in underserved neighborhoods in the city, and many live below the poverty level.
Kars4Kids: Midtown Community Services divides its youth development program into three age groups. Each group appears to have its own focus. Can we talk about that? For instance, for the younger group we see they’re doing some academic work, but even more so engaging in enrichment activities. Is that right?
Brittney Washington: Yes, all of our Youth Development programs are tailored to each age group and build on what they are learning in school. Academics, tutoring, and mentoring set the foundation for all of our afterschool activities, but we add in age-specific enrichment activities, from STEAM programs to arts and crafts, to boost each child’s confidence and social skills.
During our Summer Academy Day Camp, we found it most beneficial to divide our youth into three groups. The youngest group focuses on establishing foundational social skills. The middle group focuses on building relationships, while the oldest group focuses on maintaining those relationships.
Kars4Kids: You have a Juniors Group consisting of middle school students. Aside from academic tutoring, what do you offer the participants and why?
Brittney: Our MDTWN Juniors group is specifically designed for youth in grades 6-8th and focuses on issues middle school youth face. Activities include, but are not limited to: team building, identity exploration, and community building.
Kars4Kids: How about an overview of your Teen Club? Presumably this is a college- or career-directed curriculum?
Brittney: Teen Club operates every Tuesday from 5:30-7:00 pm and is geared toward high school students, allowing them the opportunity to grow as young leaders and prepare for their futures after Midtown and high school.
We focus on: leadership, tutoring, college/career preparation, ACT/SAT preparation, resume writing, college visits, career shadowing, future planning, and teen talks. Almost every senior who completes our Teen Club program goes on to a 4-year college or trade school, which is significant since less than 40% of young Black adults in St. Louis City are currently enrolled in college.
Kars4Kids: You run a day camp. What’s that like? Who is this for?
Brittney: Day camp is for youth enrolled in kindergarten up to the age of 12 years-old. It runs in June and July and operates Monday through Friday from 9 am to 2 pm.
The typical camp day starts with breakfast provided by a program with the Department of Human Services. After breakfast, the groups break up by age and do various activities, play recreational games, visit our community garden, or go on field trips.
In addition to giving children a safe place to grow and learn in the summer, Midtown is focused on offering learning activities that help prevent summer slide and ensure kids are ready for the upcoming school year.
Our biggest event in the summer is our Annual Peace Parade when campers create posters and share their messages of peace and hope during a march throughout the neighborhood. Since some of the kids we serve have been impacted by gun violence, the Parade helps give them a voice and hope for a better future.
Kars4Kids: Your Proud START programming is based on the five Strengthening Families Protective Factors. What are they? What is the main goal of this programming?
Barbara: The five Strengthening Families Protective Factors include parental resilience; social connections; knowledge of parenting and child development; concrete support in times of need; and the social and emotional competence of children.
While these factors are integrated into all of our programs, they’re especially important for our Family PRIDE healthy baby program, which serves new and expectant parents as well as infants and children up to age five. Our goal is to help ensure young children have a healthy, supportive foundation and are school-ready once they hit kindergarten.
In addition to the programs, all infants and toddlers receive free diapers through our partnership with the St. Louis Area Diaper Bank and two free books a month thanks to our relationship with Ready Readers.
Kars4Kids: Can you tell us about the playgroups you offer as part of Proud START?
Barbara: Each playgroup we offer is designed to promote our infants’ and toddlers’ social, emotional, and physical development. From sensory play that strengthens their gross and fine motor skills to field trips that promote socialization, all playgroups have a learning element incorporated into programming.
What’s great about playgroups is that it helps parents as well. Many of the skills they learn through playgroups can be replicated at home.
Kars4Kids: What are some of the outcomes of the Proud START programming you offer?
Barbara: The most important outcome of Proud START and Family PRIDE is to ensure babies are born healthy in a city with a Black infant mortality rate of 13%. From the day a mom finds out she’s pregnant, we’re here to provide her with case management, parenting workshops, free doula care, and free group and individual counseling. In 2022, 100% of the babies in our program were born healthy!
The other outcome we focus on the most is school-readiness, regardless what grade a child is entering. We start with Family PRIDE when a child enters kindergarten, and they can remain in programming to receive free tutoring and mentoring until they graduate high school. They know they always have a support system cheering them on at every step in their educational journey!
Kars4Kids: How did the pandemic affect your ability to serve the community?
Barbara: We never stopped serving when the pandemic hit. Immediately, we switched from in-person programming to online to ensure our kids received the services they needed. While it was a huge learning curve for all of us, Midtown still offered afterschool and summer camp programs. Each week, we delivered school supplies, crafts, and ingredients for cooking classes to our families’ homes, and kids could jump into our online sessions.
Today, we continue to address the learning loss many kids experienced during pandemic. This year, we elevated our tutoring program with BookNook, which offers both individualized tutoring based on a child’s academic needs as well as a social-emotional learning component.
Kars4Kids: What’s next for Midtown Community Services?
Barbara: Definitely continuing the work we’ve done for the past 40 years and serving even more families and children in St. Louis. I believe our mission and work are just as important as the day we started – being a supportive community, welcoming healthy babies into the world, advocating for expectant mothers, and creating a safe space for kids to learn and grow.
We also want to make more people aware of Midtown and that the work that happens here is an important part of all of our futures. And of course, we’re always continuing to improve or expand our programming to continue to meet the needs of our community.