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NMSU Valencia County Extension providing youth development program in Meadow Lake

MEADOW LAKE ? Nestled against the Manzano Mountains south of Albuquerque is one of the poorest communities in Valencia County. With 47 percent of its 4,500 residents living below poverty level, Meadow Lake is struggling to maintain its identity as a community.

Man with paper rings in hands, with a boy and a girl watching
Manuel Drapeau, Sr, helps Bianca Gabaldon, left, and Manuel Drapeau, Jr, make a paper chain during a Meadow Lakes Kid Club activity. Drapeau is one of the parents that helps with the program hosted by NMSU?s Valencia County Cooperative Extension Service. (NMSU photos by Jane Moorman)

While things seem bleak in Meadow Lake, there are a handful of residents who believe the dream of a true community can be reached. This group has set its sights on the youth as it strives to provide them with a place they can find personal and community pride.

New Mexico State University?s Valencia County Cooperative Extension Service is helping to reach that goal with the development of Meadow Lake Kids Club.

Meadow Lake was originally a 1970s real estate vision of a community with a recreational lake, where every home would have a vista that was unbroken for miles.

Today, there is no water in the lake. Many of the original landowners, who bought into the dream, have moved on or are no longer alive. The vista is still unbroken ? with 1,704 mobile homes dotting the bleak 9.7-square-mile landscape.

Meadow Lake?s median household income is $32,884, compared to $44,927 for New Mexico and $53,046 for the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau?s 2009-2013 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimate.

There are few commercial services and no recreational activities for the young people, many of whom fill the void with juvenile crimes, such as trespassing in vacant property and vandalism.

?The kids up here have nothing to do,? said Tom Mraz, Meadow Lake resident since 2006. ?A boy was murdered a quarter mile from our house by another boy. They were on their way to play in an abandon building. I felt that was one too many incidents. My wife, Tereisa, and I decided we needed to do something for the kids.?

During community meetings on ways to utilize the county?s Meadow Lake Community Center, one topic kept coming up ? provide programs for youth. Laura Bittner, NMSU?s Valencia County Extension director, was at those meetings and realized her youth development program could help.

?I knew our office could provide youth programs, not necessarily the traditional 4-H model, to give these kids something to do,? Bittner said. ?With the encouragement of Tom and Tereisa Mraz, along with other community members and some of our program?s volunteers, we started the Meadow Lake Kids Club in May. The county gave us access to a room in the community center to create a place for the meetings.?

During the second half of 2014, 17 programs were provided, including a four-day summer camp. The group, which is open to all ages of youth, has grown from 15 to nearly 40 at the year?s culminating activities in December.

?During December, we had five after-school sessions where the kids focused on making a variety of tree ornaments and participating in a service project,? Bittner said. ?All of our activities are designed to help the youth build confidence and self-esteem, and to encourage their creativity while learning life skills.?

Bittner plans to offer two after-school activities each month in 2015. There will also be two week-long summer camps in June and July.

?Each program will include an educational component on topics such as nutrition, health, fitness, and agriculture; a craft activity; and a nutritional snack,? Bittner said. ?We will also include a character development component.?

One thing that makes the 90-minute program special is that community volunteers who have no children in the program are helping. Parents also stay and help.

Meadow Lake parent Manuel Drapeau says the program has given his children an opportunity to make new friends, and for him to get to know other parents.

?My kids are gaining pride in their community through the activities,? Drapeau said. ?This is a pretty tough area of the county. Many of the 14-year-olds are already bad kids. But through this program, my children have gained confidence to stand up to the bad kids and tell them no to drugs and to not vandalize buildings.?

As the county?s maintenance man for the community center, Drapeau said he is beginning to see less vandalism of the building.

?We want the younger generation of kids to have pride in their community and respect what other people have and not vandalize it,? Drapeau said. ?Because vandalizing things only makes our community look bad.?