Children no taller than sapling pines stand barefoot on colored carpet squares, clapping and hollering, running in place and high-kicking.
At the front of the brightly lit room, Suzy Tubbs leads the Jazzercise class-of-sorts and then an impromptu push-up contest.
One, two, three … 20! The group screams as a boy still dressed in his baseball uniform finishes the rep.
It is 3:30 p.m. Tuesday at Payson Community Kids and the children’s cheery voices billow from the one-room center off South Tonto Street.
The walls are a welcome buffer for neighbors, no doubt; the non-profit group used to hold classes in the cul-de-sac before collecting donations to build the structure no bigger than a garage.
With 140 enrolled, attendance averages about 60 a day — making the just-completed building already feel too small.
But nobody complains. In fact, for 2.5 hours the children work peacefully and listen to instruction (mostly) without fuss or fight. They put away their exercise mats, open up tables and chairs for arts and crafts and help each other draw thank-you cards on foam for a community fund-raiser Sunday.
One girl, no older than 5, whispers to another that she accidentally took a drink of so-and-sos juice box, but it is “OK because I tell the truth.”
Behind her, laminated posters cover the wall. Each poster lists a concept stressed at PCK, including volunteer, excel, love, nurture, share, question and of course, trust.
Tubbs, PCK’s president, said volunteers try to instill these lessons while still having fun.
All of the children that attend PCK are “needy,” their families qualifying for food stamps, AHCCCS, unemployment or social security/disability.
A majority come from single-parent homes and seven are in foster care.
For various reasons, the children need more clothing, food and support, Tubbs said.
PCK provides all of those things, even if it is just for two days each week.
With more money, the center says it could do more.
PCK now rarely opens beyond two days a week, when children are in school and mostly looked after, but during the listless summer months, the center pines for donations to provide an additional day of structured play.
“This program helps keep these children off the street and gives them a place of hope and care that they may not otherwise get from home,” Tubbs said.
Perla Guereque was one of those children. At 10 years old, she started tagging along with her neighborhood friends who went to PCK.
She ended up coming back for years. Today, she is the executive assistant, the only paid employee at PCK.
“I grew up in this program,” she said, “and I learned a lot from it.”
The center became a second family for Guereque and her siblings.
She said the program taught her how to care for others, something she took into adulthood. She is attending college to become a social worker (or maybe a massage therapist) and working near full-time at PCK.
Tubbs said she could not do without Guereque’s help, but worries how the program can continue to pay her.
Donations almost entirely fund PCK.
Food donations from local churches, restaurants and grocery stores cover afternoon snacks and dinner, but cash donations are always in short supply.
A five-course fund-raising dinner at Gerardo’s Sunday brought in $2,500. While no chump change, it is far less than the $5,000-$10,000 the event garnered in years past.
With a daily operating cost of $200, Tubbs needs more donations.
And more volunteers. There are roughly nine active volunteers at the center, just enough to watch the children, who manage to sneak out to the playground or grab a cookie before finishing their dinner.
Among the regular volunteers are DJ Craig and Katy Rovetto.
Rovetto recently wrote a theme song for PCK using lyrics participant Brittany Beckham sang one day. Rovetto explains Beckham started singing Pay-SON Co-MMUN-i-ty Kids! They like me, they really, really like me!
From there, Rovetto wrote:
I love to climb
Go down the slide
And then I swing
Up to the sky
They know that I am just a kid
That’s why they teach me
Love and respect
I like to play games and ride the bikes
And the helpers are really nice
We’ve lots of sponsors who help us out
That’s why we give them a big shout out
For more information, call (928) 978-3256. PCK currently has an ongoing fund-raiser for a four-night cruise to Mexico. Tickets are $100 and PCK will only sell 100 tickets. KMOG will announce the winner at noon July 31.