SALINAS — A few minivans sit parked among the throngs of elementary school students, waiting parents and the fleet of school buses outside Santa Rita Elementary School.
While some students wave goodbye to their friends and rush home to watch television or go to after-school activities, 36 children pile into the minivans and head to the Salvation Army’s youth center.
Originally started in 1994 by the Salvation Army Salinas Corps, the Kid’s Cafe’s purpose is to provide a safe after-school environment for children in the community.
Salvation Army Lieutenants Ezequiel Hernandez and his wife, Katherine Hernandez joined the Salvation Army Salinas Corps in July 2020. At the time, the Kid’s Cafe program was shut down because of pandemic restrictions, but Hernandez said he and Katherine saw the need for the program more than ever.
“One of the main reasons we restarted it is because we saw the need in our community for people to help the children after school,” explained Hernandez. “After two years of COVID, we noticed that there was a deficit academically (for) the children … So we noticed right away how important the program was going to be for parents, but also for the kids to make sure they had a second hand helping them with homework, social skills, team building activities, stuff like that.”
Hernandez and Katherine Hernandez run the program for elementary and middle school-aged students in the Santa Rita Union School District. The program picks up children from Santa Rita Elementary School and La Joya Elementary School and takes them to the youth center, where Hernandez and his wife provide meals, activities and homework help until parents can pick them up.
While 36 students are currently enrolled in the Kid’s Cafe program, even more children are on a waiting list. Because of the national bus driver shortage, Hernandez explained that the program has been forced to rely on the minivans as transportation until they can find a driver. He said that with a bus driver, the program could take 50-55 children in total.
The Kid’s Cafe program operates Monday through Friday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Hernandez, Katherine and a small group of staff and volunteers help the children with their homework and provide them dinner.
For the rest of the time, students in the program have the opportunity to participate in arts and crafts, play sports outside or choose from a range of indoor activities, including puzzles, board games and building blocks.
Katherine Hernandez said the program also hosts holiday parties throughout the year for the students and teaches them team-building games and activities to develop their social skills.
“We do games for them to be able to socialize a bit better with other children their age and also just for them to feel comfortable in expressing themselves,” she said. “They’ve been so secluded for the last couple of years that we’ve noticed some of them are a little behind in reading and their math. So just doing activities that will help them (and) on days that they don’t have homework, we have packets that are put together depending on their grade level.”
The program costs families $30 a week and an additional $10 for transportation from school. Hernandez said the program fee covers supplies for activities and enables them to provide school supplies for all of the children.
A scholarship is available for families that can’t afford the $30-$40 weekly fee. Hernandez also said government grant funding provides money for the program’s meals.
“We service several different types of families from different social backgrounds and financial backgrounds, but most of our families are low-income,” Hernandez said. “Sometimes that’s a challenge because we want to be able to provide all of these services – our meals are free and all of these activities are no cost to the parents. But it also makes it a little bit harder for us to actually be able to afford to have a bus ride because that means that the cost will have to go to the parents.”
To parents, the Kid’s Cafe program is a safe place where their children can hang out after school, get some extra help on homework and hang out with their friends, explained Katherine Hernandez. But to students, it’s a chance to have fun, make lasting friendships and be a kid.
Katherine Hernandez said some students in the program have been going since they were in kindergarten. And some are so grateful for the program that they come back as high school students to volunteer, she continued. The high school volunteers help the students with their homework, serve meals and lead activities.
Hernandez said he often hears high school volunteers say how much they miss the Kid’s Cafe program.
“I remember one time, there was this gentleman who stopped by and he just wanted a plate of food,” Hernandez said, laughing. “But he said ‘I used to come here as a kid and it kept me out of trouble.’ So it lets us know that it’s not just an after-school program. It’s something that is giving kids a safe place for them to grow.”
Katherine Hernandez said she hopes to be able to include more kids in the program in the future and find more funding to provide better supplies and equipment. But she said her focus will continue to be providing a safe place for the children to be able to achieve their academic goals.
“I don’t know about you, but when I think about my childhood, I remember those times I would spend with my friends and how important that was,” she said. “And how important it is for us to invest in children because we only get one chance to get it right with them. And whatever we do, however we can be a role model for them or guide them in the right direction (matters).”
Operation Christmas Cheer is a fundraising project, sponsored by The Herald, the Salvation Army and 1st Capital Bank, which helps local families that find themselves in need this time of year. Over the years, it has raised more than $2 million, which has been distributed to needy Monterey County families and individuals during the holidays. Donors are also allowed to have a personalized message published in the newspaper. To donate, mail the attached coupon or visit 1st Capital Bank, 300 Bonifacio Place, Monterey.
Attributed gifts with message
Hallie Mitchell Dow & Family: In loving memory of Brad Dow 1930-2022. We miss you, $1,000
Anne Washburn: Missing Ruthie, Ginny & Barbie, $150
Maria Lucido: With hope, prayers, joy to those in need, $50
Attributed gifts without message
Mary Jeanne Vincent & Richard Gadd, $100
Chris Scholin, $50
Anonymous gifts with message
In memory of Russ, LaVonne and Suzy, $500
For our grandchildren with love, $150
Prayers for world peace! $100
In memory of Dave Harn, $100