An Afterschool Adventure in Omaha: Completely Kids fuses learning and fun while staying true to name

An Afterschool Adventure in Omaha: Completely Kids fuses learning and fun while staying true to name

By Tyler Dahlgren

Editor’s Note: A little over a year ago, Learning Community of Sarpy and Douglas Counties CEO Dr. Brad Ekwerekwu gave me a tour of the facilities in North Omaha before we saddled up for an hour-long interview that, to this day, is one of the most insightful I’ve conducted.

The piece on the Learning Community was published shortly after on Nebraska Public School Advantage, and in it, Dr. Ekwerekwu said something that recently had me revisiting it in the archives.

“We’re connectors and supporters,” he stated. “The ultimate goal is to edify. We’re tasked and gifted the funds from the state to be able to do what we said we would do, and that’s to support schools and to support families.”

I caught up with Dr. Ekwerekwu in Omaha recently. We were talking story ideas (NPSA is always on the prowl), and I asked him if the Learning Community could do what they do best and connect me with a great lead in the area.

Two weeks later, I was walking through the front doors of Field Club Elementary and into the school’s gymnasium, where among waves of laughter and after-school activities, I found the crew from Completely Kids.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2023 Edition of the NCSA Today Magazine.

It’s 4:05 on a gray Wednesday afternoon in February, the type of day that naturally induces those inescapable winter doldrums.

It’s wind-down time, but the gymnasium at Field Club Elementary is coming alive again just a half hour after dismissal. During the day, this is an elementary school. After school, its floors become grounds for adventure, which awaits in every direction.

In there lies the beauty of Completely Kids and its innovative, curriculum-driven afterschool and summer program that operates out of its downtown headquarters and in 16 schools throughout Omaha.

Field Club is one of Completely Kids CEO Carla Rizzo’s very favorite locations.

“It’s an incredibly diverse group of kids,” said Rizzo. “Diverse in every way. From age, race, ethnicity, to socio-economic backgrounds, and even their interests. You walk out on the playground, and there’s kids playing basketball, there’s kids playing soccer, there’s kids doing art projects. Every kid is engaging and having fun and they like to be here.”

The Completely Kids formula is curriculum-driven, but they don’t exclude fun. 

“We prioritize fun,” said program coordinator Jonathan Sanders, who said the Completely Kids recipe contains a perfect blend of the two ingredients. “We marry the two. We make sure that there’s fun in education.”

It’s all about being responsive to what the kids want, Rizzo said. After a long day of school, what any student in kindergarten through the fifth grade wants the most is to let loose a little bit. They get to do just that in one of Completely Kids’ clubs, which are developed by one of the seven staff members on site and contained by somewhat loose parameters, so long as they meet Youth Program Quality Assessment (YPQA) requirements.

“I love seeing the staff innovate and create new things,” said Director of School Based Programs Kymberly Caddell, who oversees six elementary sites and always gets a kick out of the different clubs in session. “Feeling safe, having fun, and learning something, those are the three main things we want every student to gain from this experience. I’m proud that we have awesome staff that the kids feel comfortable going to when they have issues or just need someone to talk to.”

The Learning Community of Sarpy and Douglas Counties provides the funding for the several accredited teachers on staff. That’s another unique component to the Field Club site.

“Having certified teachers running clubs is unique too,” said Caddell. “Typically, the people running clubs are part-time staff who are pursuing a degree of some sort and interested in working with kids.”

The clubs are broad and center around student interests. They’ll dive into everything from the worlds of Harry Potter, Lego City, and Minecraft to viral games like Among Us and coding and robotics. Once an idea is hatched, the staff begins weaving in educational and social-emotional components, an extensive process.

“It’s perfect for me because I consider myself creative,” Sanders said. “It’s fulfilling, it’s freeing, and it allows us to do really cool things. We try to make sure that everything we do encompasses hands-on participation from the kids. We want it to be interactive and fun.”

Caddell, an administrator by practice but a mental health practitioner by license, said that the Field Club location has a disproportionate number of kids who require mental health services, which Completely Kids is proud to provide.

“Completely Kids is very passionate about our mental health program and looking to grow even more,” she continued. “Every student receives basic social-emotional learning skills. They learn how to function well in society and about handling emotions. We have licensed therapists that come on site and do group and individual therapy.”

Rizzo said Completely Kids and Field Club Elementary share a strong partnership. Field Club is a “No Excuse University” site, and Completely Kids carries that messaging through after-school activities, too. Program coordinators like Sanders have offices on site, and the organization views itself as another bridge between schools and families.

“That partnership is vital,” said Sanders. “We all need each other. I communicate with the school on a daily basis about the kids we share. We’re in contact regarding behavioral issues and things they’re working on with certain kids. Communication is very important.”

Completely Kids has a junior support staff program composed of high school juniors and seniors. Oftentimes, junior staff members are Completely Kids alums. Most importantly, they have a desire to help kids. 

You can have the best curriculum in the world, said Rizzo, but without an engaging and dynamic teacher leading the way, you have nothing.

“That’s the key to success,” she continued. “We have a beautiful holistic model, but what I’m most proud of is the staff we have and what they’re able to do for kids.”

On this particular Wednesday afternoon, Caddell received three hugs just walking into the building. It’s cold outside, but elementary kids have a special way of turning doldrums into dust.

“The little things are the most rewarding things in this job,” Rizzo said. “The kid who’s having a little bit of a rough day, and then they get here and smile, that’s equally as rewarding to me as watching a student walk across the graduation stage. There’s no small victories.”

Sanders said everything comes back to making an impact.

“When the kids get my age, I want them to look back and say ‘There was this guy in elementary school, his name was Mr. Jonathan, and he was my favorite teacher of all time,’” Sanders said. “I want their time here to stick with them throughout their entire lives.”