Young students benefit from Y normalization efforts

Working parents in hard-hit East Naples also offered relief


Quick to resume its afterschool educational programs at three off-campus sites in Collier County, the Marco Y has been working hard to create a sense of normalcy for kids and families.

The sites, at Manatee and Parkside Elementary schools as well as Everglades City, all cater to lower income families.

“The programs are for families who work (beyond school hours) and need extended afterschool care,” said Charlene Garcia, who is the School Age Manager for the Greater Marco Family YMCA.

These three cheerful students, who demanded a portrait because they liked the idea of being “in the newspaper,” are Jada Bonilla, Leo Guzman and Esteban Rueda.

She was on hand Monday this week at Manatee Elementary School to act as teacher, counselor and program administrator, while at the same time directing the other two existing programs from afar.

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Before the start of school, she said, Y staffers Stephanie Pepper, Youth Development Manager and Caitlin Porter, Everglades Site Coordinator traveled to Everglades City to help prepare classrooms for the afterschool program there and assess family needs.

Besides helping third to fifth grade students with assignments, Garcia redefined the word multi-tasking by fielding phone calls, making walkie-talkie announcements when parents arrived to pick up their children, and offering free cases of water, fruit and food packs to those parents, thanks to community partnerships with Meals of Hope, United Way and NCEF who are regularly bringing supplies to the Marco Y for distribution.

And, if any of them were in further need, they were able to fill in special forms outlining what they wanted.

Right off the bat, Garcia was astonished at how many parents – most of whom live in the hard-hit East Naples area between US41 and Collier Boulevard – declined help by saying there were people who needed it more than them.

School age director for the Greater Marco Family YMCA, Charlene Garcia, checks on students who participate in one of the Y’s afterschool outreach programs.

One was single mom Flor Lenaris, a 6L Farms resident who is camping outside her damaged home, showering at a neighbor’s home and cooking on an outdoor grill.

“They say we’ll be getting power and water back in about 10 days,” said Lenaris, who works at Fresh Market in Naples and commutes each day in her small utility truck.

“I didn’t work for 11 days, but I look at the people who are working so hard to get our power back, and I’m thankful,” she said. “It is what it is. You have to be positive. Other people have more hardships... no place to live, so I’m blessed.”

Some parents did indeed sign up for help, and their gratitude was clear from the expressions on their faces.

Garcia herself lives in the area, and suffered extensive damage to her manufactured home. But you wouldn’t think so, watching her showing concern for parents as they arrived to take their children home.

“I’ve cried all my tears,” she said before getting back down to all that multi-tasking.

The parents, reflecting the ethnic diversity that characterizes all three of the Y’s off-campus outreach programs, were clearly hands-on working people.

Mom Flor Lenaris hugs daughter Jacqueline before heading home from Manatee Elementary School to 6L Farms, where she’s been camping outside her damaged house since Irma struck.

There was a dad with a beer company logo on his left shirt pocket; two moms wearing the colorful tops that identify nurses and nurse aides; a hotel cleaner in a dark official uniform, and some dads in jeans and hard-wearing shirts that clearly signified they earn their wages outdoors under the hot Florida sun.

The Naples Children Education Foundation and The Schulze Family Foundation largely provides funding for the outreach educational programs, Garcia said.

But there is always a need and now more than ever, she added. Extra money in turn can mean better subsidization for parents who don’t exactly take cruises or overseas trips each year.

As for the children … they seemed happy enough to be back to the routine, knuckling down to their two-hour assignments and occasionally nattering to each other before being silenced by hand claps from Garcia.

Her inherent affection for the children, however, is quite obvious, and although she’s strict in her temporary role as a teacher (she’s looking to hire more staffers to allow her to focus on directing all three sites once again), there’s always this slight smile on her face that is a dead giveaway about her love for the job.

For updates on the Y and also details about its wide variety of programs and activities for youth and adults, acquire the organization’s app, or visit