For some of the kids at Boise's Jefferson Elementary School, Mobile Rec provides the bulk of their playtime.
The same is true at other schools around Boise where the city's Department of Parks and Recreation sends its two Mobile Rec vans and crews to play games, hand out snacks and lead art activities. The program is reserved for schools where at least half the students receive federally subsidized lunches because they are in low-income families.
The idea is to get kids active when their families don't have the equipment, transportation or time to take their kids somewhere to play.
"Maybe they can't afford to go to the YMCA, can't get Downtown to the community center," said Chris Camacho, a recreation coordinator for Boise Parks and Recreation. "When you're trying to live day-by-day, you don't think about these kinds of things."
A LONG TIME COMING
Mobile Rec began six years ago in Boise with one van and a handful of recreation leaders. The van loaded with soccer balls, jump ropes and a bunch of other sports and recreation equipment and a two-person crew started showing up at schools for lunchtime and after classes to hand out healthy snacks and lead activities such as dodgeball, capture the flag and finger-painting.
It's all free.
"We love Mobile Rec," said Joan Bigelow, principal of Jefferson Elementary, the school where the program got started. "The kids look forward to it. Whenever I say it on the announcements, they clap."
Kay Mack, a longtime employee of Parks and Recreation, planted the seed for Mobile Rec or at least a version of it in the 1990s. She had seen a similar program operating in Phoenix and was convinced Boise could duplicate it. She told people here it would work, that it would be more successful than they imagined.
"Take it to the kids," Mack said Friday. "That's what it's all about. Don't stand somewhere and expect them to come to you. You've got to get the programs out to the kids, get where they live."
Fifteen years passed before Mack's idea took root.
In the mid-2000s, the National League of Cities helped Boise put together a plan for addressing gaps in its recreation service to school-aged children. Here's what they analyzed: where in the city the highest concentration of children lived; which of those areas were home to high numbers of low-income families; which areas had the highest rates of juvenile crime activity during out-of-school hours; and which areas offered little to no out-of-school recreational programs.
"We literally created a GIS map that overlaid all of these different pieces of information on the map," Parks and Recreation Director Doug Holloway said. "It identified areas around the community where there was clearly a gap where services needed to be delivered."
The map showed a trend: Neighborhoods that met the criteria of Boise's "gap analysis" were clustered together. The Vista Avenue-Overland Road area was one such area, Holloway said. So was the area around Cole Road and Northview Street.
IF YOU BUILD IT...
Boise Mayor David Bieter dedicated Mobile Rec on March 4, 2008 a couple of weeks before Mack retired.
In addition to Mobile Rec, Holloway said, the gap analysis spurred Boise to open community centers at Whitney, Grace Jordan and Morley Nelson elementary schools.
Boise Parks and Recreation leaders didn't expect the response Mobile Rec got, Holloway said.
"We felt like we would get 10 to 15 visits, if we were lucky, a day. And, of course, that didn't happen," he said. "We were getting 50 and 60. And in places like Jefferson Elementary ... we'll get over 100 kids. Horizon Elementary School is another really popular one. We'll get 100 kids a day."
There's always a buzz when Mobile Rec arrives. The workers who supervise activities tell stories of having to peel children off the vans when it's time to leave.
Mack isn't surprised.
"To me, it was a no-brainer," she said. "You get some great people. You put these activities on wheels. You take it out there to the neighborhoods, where the kids can walk out their front doors then why wouldn't it work?"
MOBILE REC GROWS UP
Today, Mobile Rec has two vans and a staff of four, plus volunteers. Many of the workers are college students. Besides schools, they show up in low-income housing developments in the afternoons and at city parks in the summer. Mobile Rec's budget for this year is $63,000, Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Amy Stahl said.
"It's become a culture, I guess," Camacho said. "We've been doing it for (six) years now and the kids know Mobile Rec. You see the kids grow up."
Parks and Recreation hopes to expand the program next year, adding a full-time recreation-themed mobile classroom that stays at Taft Elementary School. Even with the expansion, the department expects to keep the program's budget at the same level next fiscal year, which starts in October. To save money Parks and Recreation will pull Mobile Rec out of Ustick Elementary School because the YMCA now offers an after-school recreational program there.
Sven Berg: 377-6275