Clay mother looking to expand free after-school program for military kids

FLEMING ISLAND, Fla. — A Clay County mother is on a mission to create free after-school programs for military kids across Northeast Florida.

"I was lost and I know that she was lost," said Kayla Van Bebber, who started the program after experiencing personal struggles when she first moved to Florida five years ago. "There was just nowhere for me to turn in, so I really wish that this program was implemented when I first moved here."

She's working to build up the YMCA Operation Hero program. It's aimed to bring military kids together so they don't feel alone. The program was piloted last year and is now being offered at four schools in Clay, one being Thunderbolt Elementary.

Fifth grader Gabrian Espinosa said he looks forward to the 2 1/2 hour program daily.


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"They know kind of what I'm feeling when my dad is deployed or we have to move," he said.

His mother, Cynthia Espinosa, said it has been a big benefit to her family.

"There's a lot of things that he (Gabrian) can't control." Espinosa said. "He can't control when he has to move schools. He can't control when (his) dad has to leave. But we can control the environment that we're in and keeping it positive."

They keep the programs small 10 to 12 kids per school - on purpose. The hope is to expand the current four programs to have eight by next year.

But they need help to keep it going.

"It's a program that we offer, free, to these military families." Van Bebber said. "So we're asking the community that if they feel that they would like to help us spread the program that they can give to the Y[MCA] and help us grow the program."

To support the program or for more information, please contact Van Bebber at or click here.

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