Some people buy a fishing boat when they retire, or tour all 50 states.

When Carol Marchant retired from teaching five years ago, she opened an after school program for at-risk youth at the Maplewood Townhomes housing development on Winona’s west end.

“It would be very boring to do nothing,” said Marchant, the coordinator for Kids First. “I taught school for 20 years, and I saw how poverty functions as a disability in terms of impact on a child’s life.”

Kids First turned five this week, and the program celebrated Monday with cookies and cake for the kids in the program and the volunteers from Winona State University who make the program possible.

The program is a collaboration between WSU and the Winona Housing and Redevelopment Authority. The authority provides the space for the program and pays the utilities, while WSU students in the education and nursing programs provide two hours of time each week.

The program serves 40 to 50 kids each night, about 100 total throughout the year. The elementary school kids do homework or reading activities from 2:30 until 3:30 p.m. after school. The program also serves middle- and high-school students who come in when their school day is done.

The center has a large library room, as one of the focuses Marchant had for the program was on literacy. Marchant said she focused on literacy because research shows it has a powerful impact on school performance.

“Reading to or with kids can be very powerful,” Marchant said. “I think the more you can do with building literacy, the better.”

On Monday at Kids First, WSU sophomore Alyssa Steadman played “Guess Who?” with Savanah Sinning, 7.

Sinning was looking forward to the cake and cookies for the birthday celebration later. She said she really likes games and math in school. Sinning also said she liked reading, and liked all of the books offered in the kids’ library.

Another student, Isaac Vue, 5, is one of the more avid readers in the program. He enjoys building with Legos and was working on a new creation Monday while playing with WSU students Olivia Hermans and Heather Noel.

“I just like that this is a place for kids to go,” Noel said. “When mom and dad are working, this is a place for kids to learn and be safe.”

Winona resident Rhonda Blass has volunteered time with the Kids First program for much of its life. All of the grandmother’s grandkids are either graduates or still in the after school program.

Without the program and the people who make it work, Blass said some children in the neighborhood wouldn’t have anywhere to go to be supervised after school. Eight of Blass’ grandkids have gone on to college, she said, a fact she attributed to being in Winona and having access to a program like Kids First.

“The kids do some marvelous things here,” Blass said. “This program is a fantastic thing for all the parents and all the kids.

“They get to find out they had talents they never knew they had.”

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