The gym inside Cesar Chavez Elementary School is a hotbed of activity for about two dozen boys and girls playing a game called Paranoia.
Call it flag football without the football. Instead of flags, the children tuck pieces of brightly colored fabric into their waistbands, then run around trying to remove them from each other.
The children are winded and sweaty but happy. Their smiles and shrieks and high-fives speak volumes.
“They’re having fun and they’re getting exercise, and they don’t even realize it,” said Crystal Rodriguez, 34, a Boys & Girls Clubs staff member.
In addition to the physical activity, children participate in learning games and reading programs and field trips, thanks to a pilot program sponsored by Boys & Girls Clubs of Oklahoma County with assistance from the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma and Oklahoma City Public Schools.
They also get sack lunches, afternoon snacks and milk donated by the food bank.
Program participants aren’t the only ones who eat for free.
Children who live in the area can stop by for lunch, as well.
“We have kids here who may not have lunch at home,” Rodriguez said.
The program costs $5 for the summer and $10 for the entire year — a bargain for parents struggling to make ends meet.
“We have kids that come that may not have shoes,” Rodriguez said. “We have kids that have to do without.”
Rodriguez, 34, is part of a team that includes three certified teachers.
They work with children on improving their reading skills over the summer and during the school year.
An hour is set aside every day after school to focus on homework.
“I don’t think they’re getting that kind of attention at home,” she said. “We’re definitely seeing an improvement.”
Cameron Henson and Aden Freeman are buddies who attend Cesar Chavez, 600 SE Grand.
They are program regulars.
“I like the activities, mostly,” said Cameron, a 12-year-old of few words.
Like Cameron, Aden’s parents work, and he has siblings who attend the five-hour program offered on weekdays at Chavez and two other sites, including Santa Fe South Schools, a K-12 charter at 4712 S Santa Fe.
“We come over here for fun,” Aden said.
“I like coming together.”
As lunchtime approaches, the boys are carrying boxes full of food into the gym, which doubles as a cafeteria.
“It helps them feel like they’re leaders,” Rodriguez said.
Bobby McIntyre, 7, is seated at a table having lunch with his friends, who are enjoying ham and cheese sandwiches, fruit cups with peaches and little boy conversation.
Bobby is studying the nutrition information on his chocolate milk box.
“It’s got vitamins A, B and C,” he blurted out.
“I like to know what’s inside so I can be healthy.”
Irving Chacon, 6, agreed.
“It helps you not to die,” he said.