Barber Alexis Albarca cuts Cameron Reber’s hair at the Monroe Covenant Church on Thursday, Sept. 14.
Barber Alexis Albarca cuts Cameron Reber’s hair at the Monroe Covenant Church on Thursday, Sept. 14.

In recent years Kidz Club has been capped at 60 students. Take the Next Step’s community outreach coordinator Sarah Lunstrum said this fall the nonprofit’s staff and volunteers will be making room for 80 youth.

“We believe God sent us these kids, so God will help us decide how to care for these kids,” Lunstrum said.

To get ready for the gatherings, which will start in October, a signup event was held at the Monroe Covenant Church Sept. 13-14. Kidz Club leader Viviana Morales painted her friend’s nails, family members filled out paperwork and barber Alexis Abarca Zamora gave haircuts to hoards of students who were well into their second week of school.

Stefanie Alfaro came to enlist her daughter Ava, who she said is very smart for her age but quite reserved. The family first heard about Kidz Club through the summer program Wake The Neighborhood. The second-grader was greeted at her front porch by a troop of students dressed up as animals, she said.

The crew of Kidz Club leaders was walking around, knocking on doors in nearby neighborhoods to invite students in kindergarten through fifth grade to join. Lunstrum said the ideas came from Kidz Club director Raylin Lucey.

Alfaro said the group looked like it would be a good time. She had already been hoping to find activities that would get Ava out of the house and her shell.

“I wanted something to get her out there and meet other kids,” Alfaro said. “I wanted something to get her involved and to help her not be so shy.”

For the last six years, Kidz Club has provided an after-school space for students. The group meets 3:30-5:30 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday. The meetings start with snacks and games, followed by homework help. Each session ends with a faith-based gathering, where the kids can learn skills like how to regulate their emotions.

Lunstrum previously said the group was originally formed to connect youth with crucial supports, and help them develop meaningful relationships.

The Center for Disease Control reports a strong social network and healthy interactions with an adult can offset the risks associated with traumatic childhood experiences, such as suicide and dropping out of school.

Take the Next Step has tracked community-specific statistics. About 73 percent of the students at the elementary school nearest to the nonprofit live in poverty, 51 percent don’t perform at their reading level and 66 percent are behind in math skills. Students that attend high-poverty schools are seven times more likely to drop out, according to Take the Next Step.

Years ago, on Lucey’s first day, there were eight students on the carpet in the church, he said. Not only have those numbers exploded, but also about 50 volunteers now come to help out, he said.

Alfaro said after participating in Wake the Neighborhood this summer, she already saw a change in her daughter. Before each gathering Ava would be in tears, afraid to go it alone. When the student came home she would act so excited about the great time she had while hanging out with her peers, she said.

“All that huffing and puffing, and you had fun?” she would joke to her daughter.

Alfaro said she hopes Ava can benefit from the character-building exercises and tutoring offered through Kidz Club this year. She wants her daughter to make new friends. Many of the kids who attend the after-school program go to Frank Wagner Elementary School with Ava, she said.

Lunstrum said the sign-up day has been hosted for a few years. It gives the newcomers a chance to meet other members, and the staff can help families fill out the paperwork, she said.

This was the first year free haircuts were also a part of the deal.

The number of student leaders has nearly doubled from last year, Lunstrum said. She attributes that to the group that graduated fifth grade last year and were the first-ever members of Kidz Club. Those sixth-graders are now returning, to remain a part of the program they spent so many years in, she said.

Maria Reber came with her two sons. Christopher is in Take The Next Step’s City Life, which is a program similar to Kidz Club for middle and high school students, she said. Cameron is still in elementary school, she said.

Both of Reber’s children have been changed through Kidz Club, but in very different ways. She said her oldest is an extrovert, and being in Kidz Club and then City Life — a partner program —  has helped him progress academically. Her youngest is an introvert, and the group has helped bring him out of his shell, she said.

Participating in the activities helps boost a child’s self-esteem, Reber said. She also said it is a great resource for the Hispanic community. Many of the youth who have joined Kidz Club have Spanish-speaking parents, who may struggle to help their students with homework. That extra assistance two days each week can really make it easier to excel in school, she said.

While Reber was talking about her sons, one was in Abarca’s chair, and the other was in line. By the end of the quick trim, Christopher had a hand-sized “M” shaved into his scalp — a nod to the Monroe Bearcats.

Cameron was next up. He slid in and Albarca Zamora draped a cape over his front. He said he was nervous, but also excited for the lightning signs he was about to get above his ears.

Albarca Zamora has been cutting hair professionally for about three years, but has possessed the skills since he was 12. He was on his feet trying to get through a long line for four hours on the first sign-up day because he wanted to give back to the community.

While Kidz Club didn’t exist when he was a kid, he was mentored by a Youth for Christ staff member who partners with TTNS. He said he also grew up with the brothers and sisters of today’s program members, many of whom he has also known since they were all kids.

“They helped me, so I am helping them,” he said.

While the program is at capacity, Lunstrum said anyone hoping to get in should contact her anyway. She said kids will be put on a waitlist, or she can connect families with similar services in Monroe. Anyone wishing to help volunteer should attend one of the two meetings scheduled from 3:30-5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 26, and Thursday, Sept. 28, at Take the Next Step, Lunstrum said. She can be reached at sarah@ttns.org.