More than 100 children still enjoying their remaining days of summer swarmed Santa Maria's Grogan Park on Thursday for a nutritious meal and an afternoon of prizes, games and fun.
Organized by the Santa Maria Recreation and Parks Department, children participating in the annual Free Family Play Day had the opportunity to jump in a bounce house, play tug of war with Ballooney the Clown or explore the principles of buoyancy during a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) workshop led by a local Girl Scout troop.
"We do this every summer," organizer Teresa Reyburn explained. "Because of the poverty levels in the community, kids are often forced to stay home alone. That's when things start to happen in that age group."
Inspired by the Mayor's Task Force on Youth Safety, Reyburn said the summer activity series not only gets children out of the house but provides them with a safe place to go with friendly, older role models.
"It takes a village to bring up a child, and we're all determined to do that," she said. "[The leaders] don't just play games with them, they're helping them learn how to educate themselves and stay safe at a park."
Judith Smith-Meyer, marketing and communications manager for the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, said collaborative events like the one at Grogan Park are important distribution sites for the roughly 1,000 free meals the agency provides each weekday over summer. With more than 86 percent of K-8 students in Santa Maria qualifying for free or reduced lunch during the school year, students often have difficulty consuming healthy meals during summer months.
"Summer hunger is an issue because a lot of students and families rely on the daily nutrition provided by school meals," she explained. "Investing in the nutritional health of children early in life has a long-lasting impact on their growth, nutrition and ability to learn."
Smith-Meyer said the meals help defray the additional financial burden of providing lunches for children.
"These are families that already have financial concerns," she said. "It puts a huge financial burden on families. [Children] may eat the cheapest possible food, or they are just going without a meal."