Saranac Lake youth program shines

SARANAC LAKE – The Saranac Lake Area Youth Program is in the midst of one of its strongest summers ever.

The number of kids enrolled in the five-week program, which wraps up next week, is the highest it’s ever been, according to Paul Leahy, who is one of the founders of the 14-year-old program.

“In the past few years, it’s been about 80 to 90 kids for an average,” he said. “This year took me by total shock. We’re averaging over 100 kids a day. It’s the biggest I’ve ever seen.”

Leahy was at a loss to explain why the numbers are so high this year, but he noted that the trend is even more surprising given the fact that overall student enrollment in the Saranac Lake Central School District has dropped over the last few years. Financial support to the youth program from area municipalities has also declined, although the town of Harrietstown increased its allocation to the program this year, Leahy said.

“I don’t know how we keep balancing the books, but we do,” Leahy said.

The summer youth program, which started this year on July 8, is open to kids ages 7 to 13, although Leahy said the majority of kids are 7 to 10 year olds. Based at the Petrova School, it runs every weekday, beginning at 8:30 a.m. and ending 3:30 p.m. Kids get lunch with the program, and there’s an optional breakfast at 7:30 a.m.

Games, nature hikes and swimming lessons at the Lake Colby Beach are just some of the activities that students in the program get to enjoy.

“We try to keep them busy all day and tire them out by the end of the day,” said Heleni Kuma, who’s been a counselor in the program for the past five years. “There’s lots of dodgeball, crazy corners, kickball, capture the flag – everything. We try to look up more games so they’re doing a lot of new stuff, too, so it’s not old and repetitive.”

“On hot days we try to do a lot of water games,” added Chelley Pietras, who’s in her third year as a counselor. “We’ve been dong a lot of field trips with them: The Wild Center, Pendragon Theatre, bowling, hiking Baker Mountain.”

The program costs $60 per student or $100 for two students. Leahy said about half of the students are given scholarships based on need.

“It’s affordable,” said Linda Peer, a local parent who has two kids in the program. “That’s not a reason to prevent your kid from coming.

“It’s important because kids need to socialize,” she said. “You don’t have every parent home in the summer, and so a lot of kids isolate if they don’t have something like this. The swimming lessons, particularly for my first grader, have been incredible. She’s really excited about them, and I can see she’s making huge progress. And for my middle school kid, I’m not worried about what he’s doing. He was actually recruited by buddies who’ve been through the program before.

“The other thing is the counselors,” Peer added. “They’ve done a nice job of picking counselors. Each one of them is a rock star to my kids. It’s great to have such positive role models.”

The youth program has a budget of about $33,000. Most of that revenue comes from the municipalities. The program also gets about $7,000 a year in contributions from people in the community, Leahy said. Its biggest expense is payroll for counselors and lifeguards. The program also pays transportation costs when the kids go on field trips.

“I just think it’s been a valuable thing and people are used to it being here,” Leahy said. “They say, ‘Oh, well, it’s always going to happen.’ I just don’t want people to forget about it.”

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or