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Posted March 23, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Little lions: Middletown offers first branch of the club for children

Vanessa Lonsiak counts
Vanessa Lonsiak counts out five kites and puts the numbers in order. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Jacquetta Owens sings
Jacquetta Owens sings a song to help children learn to count to five. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Rebecca Stout
Rebecca Stout puts stickers on a kite. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Marge David reads
Marge David reads a story to Adrian Isaam, Giovonna Nittoio, Vanessa Lonsiak and Ben Stange. Dennis Grundman/Daily

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Jean wrote:

Very nice article. Nice to see good things happening in our community.

... Read more

By Josette Keelor


MIDDLETOWN -- The children were leaning forward in anticipation, some sitting cross-legged, others on their hands and knees, inching their way closer to the presenter who held a storybook in one hand and props in the other. Though most participants were only about 3 years old, in that short lesson the children were already gaining skills that will help them years from now -- skills like sequencing events in a story, which comes up on tests like the Scholastic Aptitude Tests and Graduate Record Exam.

Twice a month the halls of Middletown Elementary School spring to life as a free educational group extends learning time well into the evening, inviting children as young as a year old to attend.

The Middletown Children First Lions Club -- as in "children come first" -- has become a small but mighty part of the community, giving youngsters of any age a reason to be excited about going to school after hours.

A small part of Lions Clubs International, a service organization with charters worldwide, the club, which began almost six years ago, has a second meaning -- it is the first Lions Club ever to open its membership to young children.

The idea was the brainchild of Lion Wayne Davis, his wife, Marge, says. Her husband combined his two passions, she says -- education and the community -- "so they'll [children] be more successful in kindergarten."

"Everything's free, we don't charge anything," she says of the children's program.

Rebecca Stout is certainly glad the group formed so close to home. The 2 1/2-year-old's grandmother, Diann Stout, brings her and her brother, Jacob, to each meeting, but this week Jacob was sick and unable to go.

Attending the group alone was at first a scary consideration for Rebecca, who counts on her older brother to take the lead, as well as offer her some company. Soon, however, the little blond-haired girl was joining in with the other children as they gathered around a small table to begin a craft session after first listening to a song and then a story.

The theme of the recent Tuesday afternoon class was "Wind and Kites," and the song, story and craft each reiterated the idea that March's unpredictable weather can bringing both disastrous gusts and playful breezes.

The idea of the program is "to make transition into school for children easier," says Lions Club President Dave Yereb. Many parents cannot afford preschool for their children, he says, or find that lists for programs such as Head Start are often full. The local Lions Club chose to offer an alternative or even a supplement to preschool, so children can learn the types of skills they will need for elementary school. Each class offers a wide range of activities from songs to crafts, he says.

The classes offer more than just play time, though, as the instructors -- Lions themselves, and many of them past and present kindergarten teachers -- aim to include educational activities throughout the hour.

"They learn fine motor skills. They learn their colors, shapes. They learn how to interact with the other kids and take turns," says Stout. She explained that the lessons learned during activities have already helped Rebecca, who on that Tuesday hung back with her grandmother during story time, while many of the other children freely participated.

"They have learned so much," Stout said of her grandchildren, who are only 15 months apart in age.

Though the club meetings cater to ages 3-5, Yereb explains that children of other ages are welcome, as well, and free to attend with older or younger siblings -- whether 6 months or 6 years.

"It's open to everybody," says Mrs. Davis, a charter member and former Lions Club president. "So hopefully we'll be back up again," she says of attendance.

This year the club attendance has fallen off a bit, she said, whether because of time constraints or other reasons. The children's program meets on the second Tuesday of each month at 4:30 p.m. and on the fourth Thursday at 6 p.m. in an attempt to meet more people's schedules. The physical takeaway, besides any crafts they make during meeting times, is often a gift, such as books or even backpacks, which Lions Club members purchase from money raised to buy food and supplies for classes or money they donate themselves.

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