As gangs become a more prevelant force in North Babylon and the surrounding areas, it is clear that children need a place where they can have fun and be safe after the sun goes down.
That's where SONIAY Inc. comes into place.
Led by volunteers in the North Babylon community, SONIAY Inc. is a nighttime, youth program that meets every Wednesday at West Babylon's Peter J. Brennan High School in North Babylon from 6 p.m. until 9 p.m.
During the program, children from middle school and high school are able to play basketball, pool, table tennis, board games and more. While the weekly meeting is about giving kids an outlet to have fun, it's not all about games.
SONIAY isn't just an afterschool program. It is a youth empowerment program. Each Wednesday, at the halfway point during the program, all participants gather to learn a new life lesson - from handling personal finances and becoming an entreprenuer, to applying to colleges and gaining experience for job interviews.
The yearly program also includes several academic and community service trips. Each year, the group goes on a West Point College Tour and attends an Army Football game. Recently, the group particpated in the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk at Jones Beach, a tribute to the program's namesake, Sonia Saunders, the late wife of program founder and organizer, Keith Saunders, who died of breast cancer.
SONIAY, which stands for Saunders Omnipresent Network Inspiring America's Youth, is now in its 11th year. From its beginnings, the program has been seen as a second home for the children and teenagers who take part in it.
"It's almost like a family," said Derek Washington, who started in the program as a middle school student and now helps as a volunteer. "If you're having a hard time, you can come down, play some ball, and you have a group of people who care about you."
The tight community built by the program has had lasting effects on its students as well. Graduation and college entrance rates are high among those who have gone through the program and those who have been a part of it, tend to come back, including Danny Green, player for the San Antonio Spurs, who was in the program as a teenager.
This year, SONIAY is focusing is efforts on recruiting more middle school-age children so that young children in the area are able to be a part of a safe and fun environment, instead of finding trouble on the streets.
With three gang-related shootings in the area so far this year, including one that killed 18-year-old North Babylon student Rashad Capers, the importance of creating healthy communities for North Babylon's children could not be more apparent.
"We want to get them young because the gangs get them young," Keith Saunders, who is also a dean at Uniondale High School said. "Gangs take the neighbor out of neighborhood. Our mission is to connect the word neighbor back to the hood."
The program will have an Open House on Wednesday, Oct. 31 at Brennan High School, located at 550 Mount Avenue in West Babylon. Friends, neighbors, parents, children and teens are encouraged to attend.
Yearly registration is $25. Each child will receive a basketball jersey and identification card with their registration.