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For 30 years, with Suncatchers before and after school and summer programs for K-8 kids, founder Kathy Scott has been giving kids a safe, nurturing space to play and learn some “lost art” life skills with fun projects (some projects in progress can be spotted behind her). Kathy says the key is letting them choose to do what they’d like among many enriching activities offered. (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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Having fun together and coming away with skills other generations took for granted—sewing, simple woodworking, baking, or even toy-making—are two take-aways Kathy Scott built into Suncatchers, from the very start.
Kathy established Suncatchers LLC based out of Melissa Jones School in 1989. Today, Suncatchers offers before- and after-school and summer programs for kids in grades K to 8. The program gathers in the Jones cafeteria in North Guilford.
Back in 1989, Suncatchers started out as a new morning-only program. It took in a handful of kids, but quickly grew. Today, the enrollment stands at 250, with an average of 58 kids visiting each session offered.
Kathy is proud to say every child who has taken part in the Suncatchers experience through the years has likely learned a thing or two.
“This was never designed to be a day care. It was designed be a place where kids can learn life skills,” says Kathy. “And one of the things that I’ve also seen over the years is how the kids learn to share and negotiate. They want to help each other.”
Best known as a before- and after-school enrichment program for children who attend Jones, Baldwin, and Adams middle schools, Suncatchers is also available to elementary school kids who don’t attend Jones, but parents will need to arrange for transportation to and from the building. The program accommodates the schedules of working parents as well as any seeking to give their children a safe, nurturing environment to try out new and ongoing enrichment activities and crafts with other kids in a friendly, no-pressure atmosphere.
Thirty years ago, Kathy, who is also a nurse and mother of three, was “that mom” who always had a houseful of kids sharing fun times with her own children, she says. But, as Kathy noticed when her oldest son and his friends got to be kindergarten age, “most of their parents had all gone back to work.”
That made the Scotts’ home the de facto gathering spot, on many occasions, Kathy recalls.
“On snow days or no-school days, I had 6, 8, 12 kids at my house. And it was a blast! It was so much fun,” she says. “Everybody was good. We did a lot of cool things and it was great.”
Kathy also joined in the Jones PTA programs, assisting with everything from the then-new playground to organizing the Halloween fundraising party at the school for a few years. In 1989, Kathy went to a PTA meeting and heard some prophetic words from the then-new superintendent of schools, Thomas Giblin, who served the district from 1988 to 1998.
“Charlotte Nelson was the school’s principal at the time, and she brought up a problem of kids being dropped off before school. Back then, there were benches in the front lobby, and these kids would just sit there until school started,” says Kathy. “And so Tom Giblin said that somebody with an entrepreneurial spirit could take this and run with it.”
At that time, her second son was about to enter kindergarten (Kathy and her husband, Jim, would welcome their daughter a few years later), and the connection of what she could do hit Kathy in an instant.
“I had kept my nursing license, but I was done with the bureaucracy” involved with the work, she says. “So I went home, and with an old dot matrix printer, I typed up a four-page proposal for a before-school program, and I had it on Charlotte’s desk and on Tom’s desk the next day.”
Giblin and Nelson both loved the idea. They worked with Kathy through the summer to develop implementation for the program so that it would dovetail with the needs at Jones in time for the start of the new school year, and they provided a classroom space.
“The first day, we had 17 kids, and after that we had 27, and then we were always in the 30s,” says Kathy, who brought in friend and former Montessori school teacher, Claire Hurley, as a co-leader in the classroom.
Organized loosely under the Board of Education during its first nine years, Suncatchers evolved to become a stand-alone vendor operation that provides a service. It’s also evolved from a morning-only program to add afternoon and summer offerings and now takes in elementary through grade 8 students as participants.
One thing that hasn’t changed since day one?
“We do all sorts of handcrafts,” says Kathy.
Stations set up around the Jones cafeteria offer several different activities, on any given day. On a recent afternoon, kids were choosing among playgroups, knitting, simple stitching on a sewing machine, building constructs from different mediums, cooking/baking, and making holiday gifts and decorations. For several years, a multi-part, rather complicated classic cloth doll-making project was a big hit among many Suncatchers kids, says Kathy.
“Often times, when we’re starting a very involved project, they won’t touch it until somebody finishes it—and then they say ‘Oh, I want to do that,’” says Kathy. “And when they are interested in doing something and you let them, they get independent really quickly.”
The kids can also use the Jones outdoor playground to burn off extra energy or have a week-day “playdate” with friends, says Kathy. Nutritious snacks are also provided.
“It’s just a lot of fun, and the kids are enthusiastic, because they do what they want,” she says.
Suncatchers has a part-time staff of 18 who rotate to provide between five to six staff per session. The complement of staff grows to more than 25 in the summer.
“Recruiting people is not difficult, because it’s fun,” says Kathy. “We have two retired [Jones] teachers who always said, ‘I want to come sew with you at Suncatchers,’ and now that they’re retired, they do!”
Kids who have gone on to middle school often come back to participate and, in some cases, help out the younger set. The bottom line is that kids want to be here, says Kathy.
“My biggest complaint that I’ve ever had from parents is that their kids want to come all the time, and they never want to leave. It’s a neighborhood. It’s a big family,” she says.
While Suncatchers’ families are certainly aware of what this unique program has to offer, there are likely some newer families in town who do not, she adds. She welcomes email inquiries to her or co-directors, Chris Penry and Kate Pazera, at email@example.com. Once a student is registered, kids are welcome to drop in any morning or afternoon in the cafeteria at Jones for sessions offered every day of the school calendar year, between 7 and 9 a.m. mornings and 3:30 to 6 p.m. in evenings. Summer programs run from six to eight weeks at the school.
Thirty Years and Counting
When Kathy started Suncatchers 30 years ago, she never imagined the program—and her own involvement—would continue for three decades, and counting. She recently came back to the program after recovering, for 2 ½ years, from three surgeries to address a badly fractured leg.
“She couldn’t leave us! We made her stay,” says Penry.
During her recovery, Kathy worked from her Guilford home to manage Suncatchers paperwork and other management needs and relied on the work of Penry and Pazera to continue sharing the Suncatchers experience and culture with kids in the program.
Kathy and her husband recently completed a cross-country trip that was on their bucket list. Just this month, as a bit of an emeritus leader, she started coming back to help out with Suncatchers at Jones. Kathy says she’s looking forward to being back among the kids and taking part in some sewing activities, which has always been one of the life skills she loves to share. Her very good friend, Claire Hurley, also still comes back, twice a week, offering cooking, art, and origami among her popular specialties.
“It’s such a privilege to be with these kids,” says Kathy. “When Claire and I started this, the first week, we were doing a needle work project and the kids were all working at it so hard. And Claire looked up at me and she had tears in her eyes and she said, ‘I think we should pay the parents for letting us be with them.’”
For more information on programming of Suncatchers LLC at Melissa Jones School in North Guilford, call 203 457-1833 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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