BELFAST — After the first of the year, when Troy Howard Middle School pivoted to a hybrid learning model, YMCA Teen Director Sandi Roman was afraid she might lose most of the kids who attended TeenTime.

With Roman’s guidance and clever programing, the Y is now seeing a resurgence in the number of middle school students coming back to the popular in-person afterschool program.

Prior to the moment Troy Howard went remote for half the week, she had made headway in connecting with students through programming offered at the Y and thought perhaps kids could meet via Zoom to play online.

Roman started an online gaming program on Tuesdays and Thursdays where students played popular games such as Among Us, which she describes as a modern day whodunit. She also hosted an online discussion group where students could talk about subjects they were interested in.

The draw, she said, was snacks. Roman would drop off snacks at the middle school for kids taking part. “They pick up their snacks, then would log on at home,” she said.

The discussion group began, as Roman put it, “light and fluffy,” but quickly dove into personal issues as well. “We were already close,” she said, and students felt like they could open up.

The forum took on a life of its own. Roman said she received thanks from parents for the guidance she provided. Even though the program did not draw a big group, Roman said, “It was valuable.”

Starting first with sixth graders, then opening the program to all middle school students at Troy Howard, Roman said it still only brought in a few more students. “I had been doing the program at the middle school, but numbers were very low, maybe seven or eight kids…”

Sandi Roman’s panda collection lines her office at Waldo County YMCA. Photo by Fran Gonzalez

It was a challenge, she said, with no access to the gym at the school and her activities located at the cafeteria. “There is not a lot we could do in a cafeteria space, so we did a lot of table-top activities, along with snacks, playing card games like UNO, Five Crowns and Karma.”

Starting Sept. 1, the Y restarted its in-person TeenTime, and with it, Roman developed a competition that uses sports not typically played in school.

“I loved volleyball growing up,” Roman said, so she decided to offer the sport to TeenTime attendees. The volleyball competition had four teams and students could come up with their own team names. Roman came up with a schedule that ended with a playoff and winners received custom T-shirts. The Rubber Duckies triumphed, she said.

Winners of the Waldo County YMCA volleyball competition The Rubber Duckies. From left are Autumn Reed-Hall, Lelia Darre, Aidan Howard and Connor Faulkingham. All four are in 7th grade at Troy Howard Middle School. Courtesy of Sandi Roman

“It went better than I could ever have imagined,” she said. Nobody quit and their performance improved quite a bit. Not only that, but friends would come to cheer on their favorite team. “They loved it,” she said. “Now that it is over, they want to keep playing.”

Initially Roman had planned to do a dodgeball competition next, but she ran up against scheduling conflicts with basketball practices at school.

She is now scheduling a game show competition similar to Family Feud for the next four weeks on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Teams will compete against each other, and the winners will earn a pizza party.

After Christmas, floor hockey will be the sport and in the spring, kickball is planned, which she hopes to play at nearby Walsh Field for six weeks.

At the height of the volleyball competition, Roman said, each of the four teams had five to six kids, so in all there were about 24 kids who participated and played.  “It was helpful to have the middle school working with me,” she said. They reminded players what teams were playing and even posted information about the competition.

Pre-pandemic, Roman said, they would easily have had over 100 kids, especially sports seasons. Because there were so many kids and the program had few volunteers or assistants, “it was hard to do anything organized,” she said. Taking advantage of the smaller group size, Roman thought, “I can reinvent the wheel with structured programs.”

Kids used to say there were not a lot of different things to do at the Y, unless you are into basketball. “I want to eliminate this feeling,” she said, “and let kids know there are a plethora of things to do here.”

“I’d like to start a cooking class,” she said. “Maybe kids can provide food for other classes at the Y.”  Knitting and crochet are other activities Roman would like to pursue. She is looking for volunteers who can provide instruction for any of these ideas. “I can do theater and sports,” she said, “I can’t teach crafting. I know where my limits are.

“It’s all in the works,” Roman said, pointing a finger to her head.

Roman received a degree in theater arts from New York University. In the beginning, she said, it worked out well, as kids loved doing plays. Roman started a theater club and worked on original material, which appealed to kids who enjoyed acting but typically did not get cast in school productions.

“They would come up with their own themes and formulate a play with parts,” she said. They would come back with a rough draft, then Roman would edit their work and come up with a final version. The group would rehearse and eventually put on a performance for the elementary class. Both actors and audience loved it, she said.

Before last Christmas, Roman said, TeenTime students brought a storybook to life for the pre-K kids at the Y. “Students acted out a story and we videotaped the production and uploaded the video to YouTube, where we shared the link with parents and teachers,” she said. Interest in theatrical performances has since died down a bit. “It varies year to year with the kids’ interest.”

Roman said she celebrated 14 years of working at the Belfast YMCA Oct. 22. She remembers when she was only 12 or 13, telling her mom she wanted to do something with her life that made a difference.

“Coming here and working with kids, some I’ve babysat and some still keep in touch with you,” she said. “I think I’ve made a difference.

“I just turned 63, and they keep me feeling young,” she said. “Just to know there is a place they can come and be safe, and that it is free. I want to reach as many kids as I can, but I need them to want to do it.”

For more information or to volunteer for cooking, knitting or crocheting, email sroman@waldocountyymca.org or check out waldocountyymca.org/. The Waldo County YMCA is at 157 Lincolnville Ave.