The van’s barely parked at Altro Park when the door flies open and young passengers hit the ground running. The race is on to see who’ll be first to greet “Ma.”

Inside the city youth bureau, new director Melissa Junke pushes around paperwork, but her mind is on other things: the kids are late and she’s still trying to figure out what’s for dinner. James and Deon aren’t big on Ramen noodles, but Aleigha loves them.

As she’s mulling it over, in bursts the caravan, a rollicking bunch of pre-teens and a 5-year-old ready for hugs and high-fives, homework help and normal kid time in a safe place.

“The first day we picked them up, we had four or five kids. We’ve had up to 25 every day since then,” Junke said.

Word’s getting around Lockport’s public housing complexes that the youth bureau is an OK place for kids to hang out. Every Monday through Friday, a department van makes regular stops in the Gabriel Drive/Michigan Street area, picking kids up around 4:30 p.m. and bringing them to Altro Park for the evening. Once a week, the department is trying to arrange a field trip for them; a recent free viewing of the new film “Akela and the Bee,” a story about a black girl competing in a spelling bee, went over “huge,” she said.

“This week we’re going bowling, because South Transit (Bowling Center) gave us a great deal. Wait ’til I tell them: ‘Bow-ling? Say what?!’,” Junke says with a laugh.

Bringing kids to the youth bureau from the city’s North End has been one of Junke’s primary goals since she was elevated to department leadership in January. An experienced city parks leader and recreation supervisor, she knew kids in the projects don’t have many safe places to play, and a lot can’t get themselves to Altro where most city youth programming is centered.

With two city vans in the bureau lot not being used for much else, there seemed no reason not to try something new.

“Just to get them out of their environment is so important to me,” Junke said. “The main reason kids get in trouble is because they lack structure and continuity ... and here we’ve got some of what they need: a place to hang out where somebody’s keeping an eye on them, games, food, somebody they can talk to.”

The need for special outreach to low-income kids has been apparent for a while, longtime city recreation coordinator Tony Nemi said.

“Fifty percent of Altro’s (summer park program) makeup is kids from the North End or complexes in the town. Through that, we realize how many kids might not have contact with an adult all day or might not have decent meals ... . Transportation has always been a problem for these kids, but it was never believed that this was a good idea before,” he said.

It’s a good idea now, staff and kids agree. A core group of kids ages 5 to 13, most familiar with Junke from her work in the parks program, take the ride to Altro Park regularly. Whether they tell other kids about the van depends on how much they feel like sharing their new find — and staff members’ affections. Each has a favored one who’s part play buddy, part grown-up confidante.

“I like to have fun and play with the little kids and see Melissa,” fifth-grader Itasia Edwards said.

“I like to eat and play and bother Megan (Mulvey, a rec attendant),” fifth-grader Katherine “Precious” Brown joked.

Boys in the group like playing sports, making new friends and hanging out. The computer room’s a nice touch, seventh-grader James Renford says, especially for boys like him who don’t have their own machines.

“I come here just about every day and I love it,” he said.

About 6 on any given weeknight, while rec leaders watch over different groups on the playground, the basketball court and inside the bureau, Junke is scaring up dinner for hungry kids. Businesses are contributing free or deeply discounted pizzas, subs and foods that can be grilled or microwaved, since the bureau doesn’t have a stove.

Like anyone cooking for a crowd, Junke hears mixed reviews from her fickle young charges.

“We eat a lot of hot dogs and hamburgers here, a lot of Ramen noodles, which aren’t too popular with some of them,” Junke said. “One night I sent a worker home to cook up a vat of pasta and bring it back; we heated the sauce in the microwave; and (one of the kids) called it ‘slave food.’ ... It’s kind of hard to be creative because we don’t have too many options, but we’ve been doing fine. We’re all right.”

As they’ve reshaped the bureau to feel more like a home-away-from home for kids, staff are enforcing basic house rules starting with “please, thank you and clean up after yourself,” Junke said. “I don’t expect them to act like soldiers, but we have some rules. They know if they burn me, they’re done.”

Junke’s transportation initiative and can-do attitude win accolades from Georgia Mae Lindo, a Michigan Street resident whose grandson, 13-year-old Deon Johnson, is in the core group of daily travelers. Lindo helped Junke pull together the core at the outset and has offered herself and other parents/grandparents as occasional cooks for the group “to show how much we appreciate what Melissa’s doing.

“She got a group of kids together and showed them they can play together, that they’re all equal — black, white, Hispanic — and they all are important,” Lindo said. “The kids really look forward to going out (to the bureau). If she’s not here to pick them up, they call her.”

The youth department is working on expanded programming for kids at both the bureau and in the parks, Junke said, but donations will be needed since programs don’t have city funding beyond staff. A “Coins 4 Kids” collection will be going up in area businesses soon and sponsors are being sought for features of the summer parks program. For more information, call Junke at 434-3071.

Contact Joyce Miles at 439-9222, Ext. 6245.

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