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Breakaway program: Offering a chance for fun, family and friendship

by Mike Robinson

CENTRE WELLINGTON - For Mark and Julie Katerberg, it is all about giving back to the community.

For the past 11 years, they have operated the Breakaway program, offering sports and social time for young people.

Mark said the idea originated almost 18 years ago in discussion with some of his buddies. They talked about kids on the street loitering - in part because there was nothing to do.

“We thought ... We could do something about it,” Mark said. At that time, they decided to think about it some more - and get back with each other. But nothing happened.

“Later, the same guy, a buddy of mine, and a few others got together to move the idea forward. We decided we had to do something. At that point, we formed the Breakaway program. For the first couple of years, we had so many kids, it was just overwhelming.”

Mark said in the first year the program operated only from one school. He  estimated 80 to 100 kids were taking part - “if not more.”

Julie remembered “thanking everyone for coming, but [adding] we were trying to accommodate the numbers.”

Then they came up with the idea of splitting the two hours they were offering in half, with one dedicated to a group of young people and the second hour to another group.

“But it was very hectic and busy. At times it felt like crowd control,” Mark said. But they still wanted to be able to promote positive messages to the kids.

“So we had the sports and a high impact talk with different guest speakers,” he said.

Julie said the topics included managing time better, putting others first, respect and bullying.

Mark said eventually the program developed a written curriculum. “One of the group members did an amazing job of putting it together. It is a Biblically-based program that covered so many really good issues.”

Julie said it was an option for the kids, “to take a homework sheet, story, challenge or some type of activity to complete each week on a specific topic.”

When the child returned the following week, it would form the basis of that week’s discussion. “It would expand on what they’d been going over.” That part began about four years in, Julie added.

“It’s an incentive program, which is optional,” she said. “The kids can show up, play the sports, listen and go home again, but if, as an extra, they can participate in this challenge each week, we encourage them to participate with the prizes.”

Mark estimated 70% of those in the program take part in the extra activities.

“They’re learning lots of good stuff. That’s basically where we’re at with it,” he said.

Volunteers are also a big part of the program since it operates out of the Elora Public School and St. Joseph School in Fergus.

“In each gym, we probably have 12 volunteers each Wednesday night,” Mark said. The program was originally offered at St. Joseph’s in Fergus.

“They love us coming in, and they love the program. When we branched to Elora, the program first started at St. Mary’s School, but eventually moved to Elora Public because of its size. We were finally able to get in, and now that we are in on Wednesday nights, we’ve solidified our position there.”

Mark said, “It is nice that the community has recognized we’ve been around for 11 years. The community realizes we’ve been around for a while and are not going to go away anywhere. When we first started we went out to all the businesses, explained what we were doing and asked if they wanted to contribute.”

At that time, there were complaints about kids skateboarding in parking lots after hours.

“We went to local businesses saying we were there to help in a minor way - one night each week,” said Mark. “It’s a free program because there are so many kids out there who cannot join a hockey club because it costs a lot of money.”

Julie said she did not want to stereotype, but often it is kids who cannot afford to be in other programs who have nothing to do.

Mark said businesses were quick to help.

July added, “Canadian Tire especially,” referring to big hockey nets, goalie equipment, basketballs and other gear.

Mark said the program is now affiliated with the Elora Road Christian Church. “When we first started, we weren’t at all affiliated with the church. It was our own thing.”

Although members of that church, they had not approached it for financial assistance.

“And, at that time the program was less Biblically-based,” Julie added. “We wanted the community support, but if we threw in the Christian aspect, they’ll back off if they’re not in agreement.”

Then, six or seven years ago, the church still wanted to offer its support and around that time, Breakaway was looking for a way to be affordable and covered under insurance.

“We could have purchased our own insurance, but the operation costs would have skyrocketed,” said Julie.

Affiliation with the church allowed the program to be covered under the church policy.

“Without insurance, we wouldn’t be able to have the program,” she added.

And the program has had lasting effects in the community.

“It’s been 11 years, and the kids who were in the program when we first started, are now young adults in the community,” Mark said. “It’s neat to see them. A lot of them do stay in the program for the full four years and then move on.”

Julie remembered some of them being so involved in dance and hockey, and other things, “But they preferred Breakaway ... because it’s the most fun.

“I never knew why they said that or what brought them out, but it’s non competitive, their friends are involved ...”

Mark added, “It’s not just sports; it’s a social thing too. It’s not like (organized) hockey where you’re there to play hockey and learn how to play hockey - it’s so focused on that.”

Julie added, “This is more - we help them out in their skill levels. We encourage them.”

Added Mark, “But it’s not the main thing.”

Living where they do, between Salem and Elora, the Katerbergs see many kids who have been or still are involved in the program.

“They’re always so happy to see us and say hi, how they love the program and ask when it is starting up again. It makes it exciting for us. We’re making a difference.” Julie said.

Breakaway also offers a number of special events as well.

Once a year, the Katerbergs host a hockey or street hockey tournament.

And, through One Axe Pursuits, it has held zipline courses in Elora’s Irvine Gorge as a prize. As well, participants have attended Guelph Storm games as a prize.

Julie said there are numerous other activities. Around Christmas, “We take them out of the gym, and have movie and pizza parties just to mix things up for the fun, social aspect of it. Or they’ve all skated here on our rink, as something special. We serve them doughnuts and hot chocolate and have a skating night.”

The intent is to keep the activities fun and varied.

“We’re not just a sports program, we’re a youth program. But sports is a venue to get kids out,” Mark said.

“Ultimately, we want to see them make good decisions as they move from their teens to young adults.”

Julie added, “We had one little baby when we started this. Now we have five kids and the older two can be involved already. Times have changed.”

Julie said one of the biggest impacts she has seen is the desire for young people to come back.

“When they get too old, they beg us to change the age limit so they can stay one more year,” she said.

The program is for children from 10 years old to the end of grade 8.

They tried increasing to age 15, but often the young people are in high school by then, and attendance is low for that age group. There was an attitude change.

“Generally, it covers grades 5 to 8, those formative years where they’re figuring things out, like who they are and what life is about,” Julie said.

Mark noted, “Basically we feel we have something as volunteers. We feel we have something to give to the community and the kids are going to look up to us because we are older. It’s an influential age, and if we can, even with one night a week, just saying a few words into their lives, direct them in the right way.”

Julie added, “While it is a Christian program, it’s for anyone who likes sports and likes to socialize and hang out once a week at the local school.”

Mark said “The program is unique because a lot of people don’t want to step through the doors into a church. To them, that’s a little too much. With us coming to the community, which I think is important, it’s very non-threatening and a personal choice to attend.

“We have something to share, and if they want to listen, they can. The kids do listen and want that kind of thing. We’re planting little tidbits into their lives, and information into their lives.”

Julie said both programs run at the same time on Wednesday nights, from 7pm to 8pm, and  volunteers often get together afterwards to discuss how things went, or deal with housekeeping issues.

She said, “We’re not two different programs, even though there are two separate locations. We try to run them the same.”

Mark said, “It feels like we’ve been involved in this for a very long time.”

One of the things Julie  looks forward to now is, her own kids can get involved.

“After years and years of leaving them behind for this project, it’s turning into more of a family project. They invited their friends out,” she said.

She noted the program runs from the first Wednesday in October to the last Wednesday of March, with breaks for Christmas and March break when the schools are closed.

“We used to go into April, but when the weather turned nice and the days lasted longer, they went outside to play,”said Julie.

When the kids register they are divided equally into teams, with four teams at each school.

“We’ll also assign team leaders. Mark and I would be team leaders for roughly 10 kids, and would be leaders of the same group throughout the season,” she said. “That way we get to know them, their families, how the relationships work if brothers or sisters are also taking part.”

That bond helps in other areas as well.

“After six months of seeing them every Wednesday night, we can easily chat about what’s going on at home or at school. We can be a support network in a way.”

She added if kids register the following year, they try to have the same team leaders for them. For the past years, they have been able to have the same group of girls and boys in the same group - until they are too old.

“So we really get to know them.”

For more information about times, locations or to register, contact Julie Katerberg at 519-846-9013.


October 14, 2011


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