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Doors Wide Open

Family friendly: “The flexibility of our programs is important to our
families, but so is knowing that their children are well cared for,”
says Lori Innella-Venne of the Jewish Community Center.

It’s a wintry Central New York morning. You’re moving through the usual routine of getting yourself and the kids ready for the day when, surprise! School is canceled.

Finding childcare on the fly isn’t easy. But for many families in Syracuse and the eastern suburbs, the Jewish Community Center of Syracuse is an option. It has one staffer for every 10 young people, and programs for those with special needs.

Lori Innella-Venne, director of children, teen services and camping at the center, graduated from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. She’s an environmentalist always looking for opportunities to teach the young people in her charge

Each weekday, 80 to 90 families use the center’s after-school program; others take advantage of the Early Childhood Development Program. During school breaks, snow days and summer vacations, the center’s youth population fluctuates. Innella-Venne, who lives in Fayetteville with her husband and two children, says the diversity of the JCC programs allows her to educate young people about their world—and the importance of protecting it—in subtle ways while they think they’re just having fun.

On one snow day, Innella-Venne’s staff devised an array of fun activities to keep students from the Syracuse City School district busy. That day she took a few moments to talk with Family Times about the programs and her commitment to immersive learning.

Q: A community center doesn’t seem a likely place to find an environmental studies graduate. What attracted you to this role?

A: I’ve always had a passion for the environment and an interest in teaching young people without them knowing they’re learning—just immersing them. I never really saw myself in a classroom, but when I worked with the (JCC) summer camp and after-school program (beginning in 2004), it just seemed like a great place for me. It’s a fun setting, full of teachable moments.

Q: The JCC has a variety of options for young people during vacation breaks. Can you describe some of those?

A: For example, with our summer camp program we offer many of the basic activities that other camps do, but we also offer five or six specialty camps each week. Whether it’s fishing, horseback riding, science, we try to match specific interests.

Q: And the after-school program?

A: Our after-school program is utilized by families in the Syracuse city, Jamesville-Dewitt, Fayetteville-Manlius districts, as well as some of the area private schools. Busing is offered from those schools, and we offer many different options for activities: computer time, sledding outside, cooking club, puzzle club, just about anything. We tailor the offerings to specific interests. We also have a New York state-certified teacher to help with homework.

On snow days, we are open from 7:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. And we have a bag of tricks to bring out whenever we need to. We try to be really creative with the games, then it kind of rolls into our regular after-school program, which starts at 4 p.m.

Q: I imagine children move from one program to another as they grow.

A: Yes, and that’s fun to have those connections with the families. Our preschool program starts at 18 months and many of those kids graduate to our after-school program or come for the camps. There are always families here we recognize and that’s encouraging to us because we are here for our community.

Q: It seems that the JCC is taking a lead role in offering quality youth programs that appeal to working families. Have you been specifically promoting that aspect of the center?

A: This is only my second full year in the job, but I would say we are really trying to let people know that we’re here for everyone. We’ve been trying to promote our snow day care, too. People are surprised by how affordable it is. Members pay $20 a day, and for non-members, it’s only $30. The school vacation days are a little more, $35 and $45.

So, I could wake up tomorrow and bring my child over if school is closed?

A: Pretty much. There would just be a simple form to fill out. But that’s it. We have enough staff to basically handle as many as we can hold.

Q: Have the local schools been receptive to helping you get the word out?

A: Yes, and that’s meant a lot to us. People used to think they had to be Jewish to use our programs. But our slogan is: “We’re Jewish, but you don’t have to be.” People are catching on to the fact that we serve the greater community. Our best form of marketing is word of mouth; parents tell others about our programs.

Q: Do you foresee any changes in terms of how you will handle increasing demand?

A: There is always room for improvement. Our staff is always coming up with new ideas and we try different things all the time. We’re limited by our size, but it’s not limiting us right now. Nothing is a constraint and we are always getting feedback from members and parents; many serve on our advisory board. We just added music lessons because of the demand. We’re a community center and everything here has to be taken with consideration for everyone.

As a busy mom yourself, how do you stay present to 100 or more kids every day?

A: Just knowing that you’re making a difference in the lives of children, and the parents as well. The flexibility of our programs is important to our families, but so is knowing that their children are well cared for. As a mother, I know how busy parents are these days. So when I am here, these are all “my children.”

Q: Surely there are challenges?

A: There are times when things don’t always click. When you get kids of all ages and temperaments and interests, you’re going to have to use your creativity. But my staff is great and when we hit a bump in the road, it gets addressed quickly. Parents trust us to make sure their kids are safe and it’s something I take very seriously.

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