By Debbie Adams
Charlie Pelnick and Tom Pokorney, both in their first season playing defense for the Rail Yard Dawgs hockey team in Roanoke, stopped by Vinton Baptist Church on February 2 to pay a visit to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southwest Virginia afterschool program.
The program’s Unit Director Patrick Moore and his assistants gathered about 20 kindergarten through fifth graders in the gym at Vinton Baptist for a meet and greet with the hockey players. Most of the students attend either Herman L. Horn or W.E. Cundiff Elementary Schools in Vinton.
The ice hockey players, who came dressed in their team jerseys, introduced themselves to the children. Pelnick, 26, is in his first season with the Rail Yard Dawgs. He is from Cary, N.C. Pokorney, 27, who joined the Dawgs in October 2021, comes from Dexter, Mich.
The children were not shy in introducing themselves in turn and sharing their own experiences with ice hockey. Almost all were familiar with the sport; some had skated before; some had attended Rail Yard Dawg games at the Berglund Center; some are avid hockey fans.
The students were bursting with questions for the players which ranged from “How tall are you?” to “What’s your favorite candy?” and “What’s the worst injury you ever had?” (Pelnick, a broken leg; Pokorney, a concussion.)
The students asked if the Dawgs had won their last game played—the answer was, unfortunately “no.” One tactful student inserted his observation that “every sport is about having fun,” not winning.
The Dawgs had brought along a hockey uniform and gear which one lucky fifth grade student, Jay Paul, donned piece by piece as the others watched. Pelnick and Pokorney named each piece of equipment and its purpose. The next question was “How do you move with all that equipment on?”
When asked, “How did you learn to play hockey?” both players answered, “years and years of practice.”
Once the questions dwindled and the hockey gear and uniform had been inspected by all, the students received a special gift courtesy of the Rail Yard Dawgs—a stuffed animal from the “Teddy Bear Toss” event at a Dawgs’ game in December.
On one special theme night, sponsored by Gillespie Allstate Agencies, the tradition is for fans to bring new teddy bears (or other stuffed animals) to the game and after the first goal is scored by the Dawgs, the teddy bears are thrown down onto the ice; the game stops and then the stuffed toys are cleared and donated to local charities. Each child in the afterschool program was able to choose a stuffed animal, in some cases bigger than they were.
Students returned to their classroom and were surprised with another meet and greet—this time with Vinton Mayor Brad Grose, Town Manager Pete Peters, Vinton Baptist Pastor Travis Russell, Catherine Fox from Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge, and Michelle Davis, the CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of SWVA.
The first question for the mayor was, “What do mayors do?” One child’s reply, “He makes the rules for Vinton.” Mayor Grose expanded on his role, explaining that he gets to visit people in the community like them and to help people if they are having trouble. He mentioned the services the town provides for citizens “to make things better.”
Grose, Peters, and Russell had been invited to meet with Davis and Rebekah Meadows, the Director of Programming for the Boys and Girls Clubs of SWVA, to discuss their program, and some potential financial backing from the Town of Vinton.
Davis explained that the organization was founded some 25 years ago with one location on 9th Street in Roanoke City. Over time it has expanded to afterschool programs in 12 sites, including this year at Vinton Baptist.
In fact, the Boys and Girls Clubs had opened the site at Vinton Baptist in the fall of 2020 as a full day program. Roanoke County had reopened schools under COVID-19 guidelines with a “hybrid learning” plan in which students in grades K-2 attended school in person full-time, while students in grades 3-12 received in-person instruction in their schools two days each week with online learning the other three days. School Board members and the school system’s leadership team expressed concern about childcare options and academic support for students on the days they weren’t in school.
The hybrid plan led to the founding of the Roanoke County Community Day Programs Task Force. The Task Force and the school system partnered with the United Way of the Roanoke Valley and the Boys and Girls Clubs of SWVA to set up full-day academic support programs for students in various settings throughout the county to assist working parents on the days when learning was online.
One of the facilities which stepped up to offer space for the day program was Vinton Baptist Church, which served students in grades 3-6. The day program was discontinued in the Fall of 2021 when Roanoke County students returned to school full time in all grade levels. However, Russell and the church expressed an interest in continuing the partnership in some form, as a “ministry to the community.” He says they have the facility available, which sits empty for the most part during weekdays.
The church contributes not only the space but monetary donations from its individual members and daily snacks. Russell says that once COVID ends, there are church members who would like to assist by volunteering to work with the program.
Davis emphasized that the Boys and Girls Clubs program is more than childcare—its focus is on youth development. Students currently arrive about 2:30 p.m., delivered by school buses. They complete about an hour of homework. Unit Director Moore works closely with the two elementary schools and teachers on the academic needs of each student, analyzing data to determine where to focus tutoring. Then the fun activities begin with a broad array of activities.
Students qualify for the Boys and Girls Clubs of SWVA program by academic or financial need. Davis says the goal for the program at Vinton Baptist is to eventually serve 50 students.
Davis credits much of the expansion of the afterschool programs to grants from the 21st Century Grant program through the Department of Education and to Rebekah Meadows’ 100% success rate in obtaining the grants applied for. The 21st Century grants provide funding for community learning centers to provide academic, artistic, and cultural enrichment opportunities for students during non-school hours.
During the meeting, she focused on the finances of the program and the uncertainty of depending upon grants to keep the programs running year to year. It is a competitive grant with some limitations on spending. For instance, administrative costs cannot be covered by the funds. Also, the grants aren’t awarded until late summer, leaving them at a disadvantage in recruiting employees. Staffing has become their No. 1 challenge. And, as always, federal programs are always “on the chopping block” for legislative action.
Davis wants to develop a more sustainable, long-term plan for the afterschool programs that is not solely dependent upon grant funding—acquiring sources of gap funding for years in which they might not receive a substantial grant. So, she came to the Town of Vinton asking for assistance. She hopes the town can provide some of the extra funding the program needs on an annual basis.
The Town of Vinton is now developing its budget for the next fiscal year. It does allot a portion of town funds each year to support valuable community programs. Mayor Grose and Peters promised to bring the needs of the Boys and Girls Clubs of SWVA to the attention of council.