BROOKINGS – In 1979 when Jan Stange gave birth to a daughter, she and her husband Ken decided she should be a stay-at-home mom. That continued to be the plan when the family moved from the Twin Cities area to Brookings in 1982.
But in a few years, Jan would play a role in what became – and still is – a big part of her life: the Great After-School Place, usually referred to simply as “GAP,” where she has served as coordinator for more than 25 years.
After the Stange family settled in Brookings, she wanted to get back into teaching and applied to be a substitute. She had impressive credentials, but some medical issues kept her from teaching. She remained at home, and eventually she and Ken had four children. They now also have four grandchildren.
While Stange was born in Minnesota and received her higher education there, she considers herself “more of an easterner, because my early years I was raised in New Jersey.”
Her father worked for 3M. When the New Jersey plant where he worked closed, he moved back to Minnesota. All her siblings went back to and still live on the East Coast. She stayed.
Stange attended Minnesota State University Moorhead because of the school’s “education program that was very well known for being a superior elementary program.” She graduated with qualifications for elementary education that included kindergarten certificate and gifted education certificate.
Ken and Jan had married right after she graduated; he was still in school at the University of Minnesota. She moved to the Twin Cities following her graduation.
There was a big glut of teachers in the area at that time, so she ended up as a substitute teacher for the St. Paul schools system for a year. Then she got a job teaching sixth grade.
“It was an experience,” Stange recalls, “because most of the schools that I was in were very definitely the low income, inner city kind of experience. It was quite new to me. I enjoyed it; met some challenges along the way, of course. “As a stay-at-home mom in Brookings, Stange began seeing “issues that were going on in the community, with kids having no place to go.”
“In my own neighborhood, I became like a den mother to all the kids who were running around after school,” she recalled, smiling and laughing. “We noticed. It was a challenge. There wasn’t any place for kids to go.”
Stange cited some statistics that showed the after-school hours until about 6 p.m. were the time when “child crimes” such as shoplifting and other minor brushes with the law were taking place.
“It became very evident that there needed to be something, such as ‘latch-key’ programs,’” she added.
She credited the Medary Elementary School PTA with initially wanting to do something to address the issue. And she got involved.
“We started to have a few meetings,” Stange explained, “and the minister (the Rev. Frank Borma) that was at this church (Faith Reformed) totally agreed that something needed to be done.”
In 1988 a city-sponsored survey yielded mostly positive responses. And Brookings Mayor Gail Robertson was instrumental in the formation of a committee for the proposed new undertaking. Stange served on the committee.
In fall 1989 the first GAP site opened at Faith Reformed Church and Stange became board president. When the coordinator left for another job in early 1991, Stange stepped in to fill the gap. As a stay-at-home mom, she had no outside job.
“It was just kind of by default, in a way,” she explained. “I had experience with kids. I had experience in education. They figured I could take it on.” She did and she’s still on the job.
Initially GAP had sites at three Brookings churches: United Methodist for Central students; Ascension Lutheran for Hillcrest students; and Faith Reformed for Medary students.
When the program first began it was limited to days the students were actually in school. However, changes to the program came as more needs were identified.
“As the need became visible, we tried to meet that need,” Stange explained. “We went from being school days only after school to doing mornings, in-service days, holidays, and then we started the summer program, because the summer was also needed.”
Today GAP has sites at Hillcrest, Medary, Dakota Prairie and Camelot schools and a kindergarten site at First United Methodist Church. Stange explained that GAP started in church facilities and then moved to schools because they had multipurpose rooms.
“The transition went smoothly, and there were no transportation costs,” she said.
“It was nice because the kids didn’t travel or have to walk. We had our materials. It just seemed like a natural flow and the school welcomed us to come in.”
An additional plus for the GAP program was the receipt of state funding via “health and safety grants.” That kind of money – $15,000 – made the kindergarten program possible.
“There were grants available for any new after-school startup program,” Stange said. “It was very evident that it was needed in the state. ”
Now the grants are gone. GAP operates with parent-fee support.
“I firmly believe we needed a program that wasn’t on soft money,” Stange explained. “We need a program that parents can count on. If you have soft money, you don’t know from year to year what’s going on.
“The fees are based on what our costs are. It’s one of those things where if our program were to end, it would mostly be because we wouldn’t have the kids; and we’re still growing.”
There are presently about 300 children in the program. Age ranges from kindergarten through 12 years old.
“That has allowed sixth-graders to come in,” Stange said. “We actually have seen a number of sixth-graders that have come to the program, particularly in the summer after they ‘re done with their fifth-grade year. They’ve stayed with us.”
She added that the sixth-graders have been a plus to the program: “It’s really nice; because with the older kids, they give back to those younger children who have come in. They’re sort of mentors to them.”
While some organizations operate under long and sometimes difficult-to-comprehend mission statements, the GAP program has a succinct and simple one: “The mission of GAP is to develop the youth of our community by strengthening life skills in a safe, positive environment.”
Vital to GAP’s mission is its on-site staff of 40 to 45 full-time and part-time employees. The number fluctuates somewhat depending on the number of children in the program.
Many of the GAP part-timers are college students.
“A worker has to be 18 or older to be able to be left alone with a group of kids,” Stange explained. “Because of that, if we’re going to pay a staff person, we want them to be able to be alone with a group of kids. So we seldom will hire a high school student unless they are 18.”
Stange explained that she has a somewhat personal mission of her own when considering GAP employees: “We want people who enjoy children, who can dedicate themselves to children. To me that is part of my mission as administrator of the program: to get people there who really like kids.”
Contact John Kubal at [email protected]