By SUNDAE HORN
Blast month, the Ocracoke Youth Center sponsored a “Flat Stanley Returns” party and potluck at the Ocracoke Community Center. Thirty Ocracoke kids in kindergarten through second grade shared their Flat Stanley projects, which they had worked on at the after-school Big Kids Club.
Janet Baker, known by all as Ms. Juju, got the idea for the Flat Stanley project from the Flat Stanley book series by Jeff Brown. In the books, Stanley is a normal boy who is accidentally flattened one day, after which he has many adventures when his parents discover they can mail him off for a visit anywhere.
The Big Kids Club kids each made a Flat Stanley and mailed him off to a friend or relative for a visit. The Flat Stanley recipients took pictures of their Stanley on his adventures, and then mailed him back to Big Kids Club. The Ocracoke Flat Stanleys traveled all over the U.S., from other towns in North Carolina to Maine, New York, and California. Some Stanleys even went as far as Austria, England, and France!
For the Flat Stanley party, the kids made posters showing where their Stanleys had been. The participants were enthusiastic about taking Flat Stanley to see the sights of their towns and taking his picture doing all sorts of fun things. For example, Brendan Boos’ Flat Stanley went surfing in Malibu, Calif., Chandler O’Neal’s Stanley visited a fire station in Fire Island, N.Y., and Giselle Perez’s Stanley went down a slide in Grifton, N.C. Stanley rode in cars, went to beaches, met babies and dogs, and climbed trees. He appears to be happy in all his adventures!
After the kids presented their Flat Stanley projects, and just before the potluck began, the Ocracoke Youth Center board members took some time to honor Ms. Juju and thank her for her years of service to Big Kids Club.
The party was bittersweet – it combined the celebration of a fun and educational project with a sad goodbye to the Big Kids Club. As of Dec. 16, Big Kids Club has closed its doors after eight years of quality after-school programs for Ocracoke children.
The Big Kids Club program was the brainchild of Ms. Juju, who moved to Ocracoke in 2001 from Malibu, Calif. Her kids were grown and had moved away from Malibu and she was “free.” She came to work for her sister, Mickey Baker, who co-owns The Mermaid’s Folly gift shop, but she also started working at Ocracoke Child Care soon after she arrived.
By September, 2002, Ms. Juju realized there was a need for an after-school program on the island, so she started one on the school playground. She would meet the kids every day at 3, and hang out with them supervising their play. When the weather got colder, they looked for indoor spaces and ended up using the Fire Hall. She kept toys – mostly Legos – in her car and had some of the bigger kids help her carry them up the stairs at the Fire Hall and back down each day. Her after-school idea was popular and successful enough that Hyde County Schools agreed to pay her a small salary.
The first Flat Stanley party was at the Fire Hall. It, too, was a big community event, bringing in parents, teachers, and the Hyde County Schools superintendent. The kids wore Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department T-shirts and the BKC presented a check to Fire Chief Albert O’Neal in thanks for the use of the Fire Hall.
By that time, Ms. Juju’s activities had reached the notice of Cynthia Carver-Calvitti, who was then director of the fledgling non-profit Ocracoke Youth Center. Carver-Calvitti was working on getting a Family Resource Grant and finding a permanent home for the Youth Center.
As Ms. Juju puts it, “I just kept doing what I was doing with the kids, and by the spring of 2003, we had the Youth Center van, thanks to Susie O’Neal’s work on that. We could transport the kids to our new space at the old Black Anchor Antiques shop. The kids helped get it ready – they pulled old nails out of the walls and painted it bright colors. We didn’t charge any money and parents and others donated snacks. Jetta [Brown] helped out and we made sure the kids had fun.”
The Big Kids Club served 20 or more children every day, and was the mainstay of the OYC program for years. The BKC program included outdoor play (both at the school playground and the Youth Center play area), homework help, snacks, games, art projects, movies, books, lots of Lego-building and just hanging out with Ms. Juju and her teen assistants. It ran from 3 o’clock when she would meet the kids at the school playground, until 5:30 or 6. Parents could sign their kids up for every day or pick the days that best fit their schedules.
The Big Kids Club program continued to grow while OYC experienced changes in board members, directors, and funding. After the Youth Center stopped receiving Family Resource grant monies, the programs had to be supported with fees, and Big Kids Club had to start charging. The money didn’t seem to matter to parents. The Big Kids Club had full enrollment right until the end.
“I loved this program so much,” Juju said in a recent interview. “What I did with the kids is what I believe they needed – a loving, warm environment for problem solving, socialization, getting their homework done, letting the second graders help the younger ones… We only had one rule: be nice. It was cozy, like a home setting in a big family.”
She adds that “mutual respect” was an important part of her approach, and although the Big Kids Club might have looked chaotic at times, it was controlled chaos.
“I wanted the kids to feel like it was their program, that’s why we called it a club. We were all part of a team, all working together,” she said.
Ms. Juju brought the phrase “peace out” to Ocracoke from California, and it caught on and became the BKC motto. When the kids were on the playground, she’d raise her hands, call “peace out!” and they’d all come running to line up for the van. If there was a disruption, “peace out” was a signal to calm down and work things out.
Behavior problems were rare, Ms. Juju said, because of the mutual respect and the problem solving she emphasized – and the fact that if the behavior got bad enough, the punishment was that the kids causing the trouble couldn’t come the next day. Nobody wanted to miss a day of BKC. They all wanted to be with Ms. Juju.
Being a friend to children comes naturally to Ms. Juju, who earned her nickname from a pre-K student while teaching in California. (No one calls her Janet anymore. Ms. Juju is on her license plate, and her 2-year-old granddaughter calls her “Gamma Juju.”) She grew up on Long Island, and her first job there, at the tender age of 18, was driving a Good Humor ice cream truck. At Christmastime, she was an elf, spreading cheer with Santa at Macy’s.
She started teaching preschool in California when her children were little, and eventually she organized the original after-school Big Kids Club at Point Dume Elementary School in Malibu. That program is still running today, and Ms. Juju is still in touch with some of her former students. (A few of them hosted Flat Stanleys, including Brendan Boos’ surfing Stanley.)
Since moving to Ocracoke, Ms. Juju has remained dedicated to kids. She works as a substitute teacher at Ocracoke School and has been a Brownie Girl Scout leader. She loves to help at the PTA Halloween carnival and was a regular helper at the Books to Be Red Christmas parties for years. In addition to Big Kids Club, Ms. Juju helps at OYC movie nights and also did summer programs for the Youth Center — the very popular Hawaii camp and pirate camp. It should be mentioned that she taught pre-K to Ocracoke School’s biggest class (the current sixth grade) and that she did it without an aide.
Ms. Juju would have been happy to be at Big Kids Club forever. Until the first week of October, BKC had full enrollment. But on Oct. 4, only two kids showed up. The rest had enrolled in the new 21st Century Community Learning Center program offered through Ocracoke School.
The 21st Century program is funded by a federal grant, and it offers free after-school tutoring and enrichment to all students in grades K-12. Although Ms. Juju knew that Ocracoke School had gotten the grant, she had no idea what the impact would be on Big Kids Club.
“I felt blindsided,” she said. “It was hard to get my bearings. I think the grant is a good thing, and I can understand parents wanting to support the school and get on board, but I don’t think the little ones in K-2 need that kind of program. They don’t need the tutoring sessions, more school, more rules. They need the loving environment I gave them.”
Ms. Juju and the Youth Center tried to collaborate with the 21st Century program and combine the after-school programs. For a few months, the kids would go to the 21st Century program until 4:30, then Juju would pick them up in the van and bring them to Big Kids Club.
“By the time I got them, they were hungry, tired… and they started being picked up as early as 5. It just wasn’t the same as Big Kids Club,” she said. “My after-school program was fine the way it was, and the new program doesn’t give them what they need.”
The decision to shut down the long-running Big Kids Club program was not an easy one, but with the 21st Century grant in place, Ms. Juju and the OYC board saw no choice.
Bob Chestnut, president of the volunteer OYC board, said, “This program is going to be missed. If you could go back to when it started, you’d see the huge difference it’s made. The kids who started Big Kids Club are sophomores and juniors now, and I think Juju has had an immeasurable impact on their lives and the lives of all the kids who’ve been in it. She’ll really be missed, and I feel for the younger ones coming up who won’t have this program.”
OYC Director Karen Lovejoy said, “I’ve never known anyone more committed to children’s well-being than Juju. In the five years we’ve worked together, she’s been absolutely dedicated to those kids. It’s been wonderful year after year to see kids who’ve graduated from Big Kids Club beg to come back and help so they can still be there. They don’t want to leave, which says a lot for the program.”
The Flat Stanley project was the last one Ms. Juju did with the children at Big Kids Club. During the Flat Stanley Returns party in December, Bob Chestnut invited all the kids who’d ever gone to Big Kids Club to come forward.
More than 50 of them, from kindergarteners to high schoolers, crowded the stage around Ms. Juju. She thanked them for being there and then made a request: “Raise your hand if you’re my favorite!”
It was a perfect tribute to Ms. Juju that every kid on that stage raised a hand.
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