In 1984 Deborah Kneeland and her sister, Connie Grayson, recognized a major void in structured after-school programs for children in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Grayson was an elementary schoolteacher in Winthrop at that time. Kneeland was working as a research assistant for the state commissioner of education and expecting her first child.
“I realized that when my son (Bobby) became five years old, there was not going to be anyplace for him to go in order for me to continue to work,” said Kneeland. “My sister also recognized there were a number of children going home after school to empty houses.”
So together Kneeland and Grayson put on their visionary caps and co-founded For Kids Only in the basement of the American Legion Hall in Winthrop. “We started with five children and within a year’s time, we had outgrown the space,” recalled Kneeland.
The women moved their after school program in to the St. John’s the Evangelist Church cafeteria and gymnasium and worked closely with the parish. Recognizing that Kneeland’s after-school program was a success beyond measure, then-Superintendent of Winthrop Schools Joseph Laino called For Kids Only and inquired about establishing a partnership with the school system.
For Kids Only launched an extended-day program at the E.B. Newton School in Winthrop and soon expanded to the Willis School where Kneeland worked with Principal Bill Gorman (“An amazing principal,” said Kneeland). Winthrop Middle School opened a site and soon children from neighboring Revere were taking advantage of the offerings by For Kids Only.
The city of Revere soon wanted to part of the growing kingdom of kids and in 1998, Superintendent of Revere Schools Carol Tye began a partnership with For Kids Only, opening a program at the Lincoln School. Mayor Tom Ambrosino got on board in 2000 and he was instrumental in For Kids Only reaching a new level of popularity and support. Ambrosino also created a Revere after-school partnership of community leaders, school administrators, and youth agencies that continues to bolster the city’s investment in its youth.
Kneeland also credits Speaker of the House Robert A. DeLeo for his assistance in the expansion of For Kids Only.
“Speaker DeLeo has been an unbelievable supporter of our mission,” said Kneeland. “He was one of the major leaders of the after-school, out-of-school-time grant programs. He has also always stood up for low-income families.”
The outreach of For Kids Only has grown in recent years. The Peabody school system became a partner with For Kids Only in 2008. Six Peabody elementary schools now offer after-school programs under the sole auspices of For Kids Only.
The public school systems of Salem and Everett chose For Kids Only for a community partnership in their after-school systems that same year.
Why have school systems put their faith in Deborah Kneeland and her For Kids Only staff and why have their methods been so successful in motivating children?
A former special education teacher herself and a big supporter of classroom schoolteachers, Kneeland says, “The nature of our work is two-fold: we support working families and we expand learning opportunities for students in a very different way. We build not only on the cognitive (academic/intellectual) sides of the child’s being, but we also work very closely with the social and emotional piece of a child which we believe is the base of 21st century skills that kids need to receive. We work on team-building, problem solving, communications, and conflict-resolution.”
Kneeland said every child leaves a For Kids Only program feeling like a winner and having a boost of self confidence.
“We really believe that if we can give kids the tools to work with diverse groups and how they have to respect each other, then kids will be able to get out in the world and be successful in school,” said Kneeland.
Because For Kids Only is a non-profit organization, Kneeland says they’ve been able to leverage funding sources that aren’t available to school systems.
Kneeland proudly points to For Kids Only’s new state-of-the-art facility on Broadway in Revere as an example.
“United Way Mass Bay, the Children’s Investment Fund, Danversbank, the Meridian Foundation of East Boston Savings Bank, the Clippership Foundation, and the State Department of Education all gave us grants for our center and we’ve received smaller individual donations,” said Kneeland.
Kneeland is hoping that Governor Deval Patrick will consider restoring the funding for after-school programs such as hers.
“We have 346 children on our waiting list,” said Kneeland. “We’ve been told by the state that there will be no more vouchers given, until [the state] makes up a $20 million deficit.”
Still, it is a time of much celebration at For Kids Only. Two women’s idea for after-school programs has grown to the point where thousands of children have participated in For Kids Only programs.
In Winthrop today, For Kids Only operates sites for children in kindergarten through grade two at the Fort Banks/Gorman School. The 21st Century Learning Center oversees programs at the Cummings School and the Kathy’s Place Youth Center.
Kneeland said the organization will celebrate its Twenty-fifth year of existence with a fundraising anniversary gala on Saturday, November 28 at the Winthrop Yacht Club. The event is being chaired by Briana Kneeland, a graduate of Bentley University with a degree in Marketing who is the director of development for the organization. Tickets are $25 per person and proceeds will go toward family scholarships for the program.