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NIAGARA FALLS AFTER-SCHOOL GYM PROGRAM FITS WINTER NEEDS

Offering everything from war ball to swimming to women's aerobics, the Niagara Falls Parks and Recreation Department has the answer to the winter blues -- and it won't cost you any of the green.

The Winter Gym After-School Program kicked off recently with activities at several schools. And the best part is that it's all free.

"Kids to adults, everything offered is free," said Susan Kotlarz, the Niagara Falls Youth Bureau director, who also oversees the winter gym program. "Just come in and exercise, hopefully to beat the winter blahs."

After-school gym programs are being offered at H.J. Kalfas, Maple Avenue, Hyde Park, G.J. Mann, 60th Street and 79th Street elementary schools, as well as at the LaSalle Facility, 9501 Colvin Blvd.

Open swim is offered from 4 to 6 p.m. weekdays at 60th Street School; 4 to 6 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays at 79th Street School; at the same time Wednesdays at Maple Avenue School; 4:30 to 5:45 p.m. Thursdays at Kalfas; 6 to 9 p.m. Thursdays at Gaskill Middle and 6 to 9 p.m. weekdays at LaSalle Middle.

Night gyms also are offered at the two middle schools, Ms. Kotlarz said, and a women's aerobics program is available from 6:15 to 7:15 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at the LaSalle Facility.

Call the Youth Bureau at 286-4876 for more information, or stop in during any of the program times and talk to a supervisor.

"We've been kind of updating everything," responding to the ever-changing recreational scene, Ms. Kotlarz said.

In years past, volleyball was a popular city rec program; however, the expansion of various leagues around the area forced the department to drop that offering.

"Instead of offering volleyball, we diversified," Ms. Kotlarz said. "And after-school programs used to be for 12-and-under and over-12. We've changed that to different ages" in order to serve a broader group, she said.

Those over 16 now are referred to the LaSalle Facility, where they can use the game room or participate in a number of other activities.

Younger children are engaged in arts and crafts and various games, including war ball, basketball and football, Ms. Kotlarz said.

The big thing is that they're allowed to run and play "in a contained, safe environment" where parents know that they are being properly supervised by a minimum of two supervisors per site, she said.

"The new thing this year is that we have a contract of behavior," Ms. Kotlarz said. "Participants must listen to the leader, keep their hands and feet to themselves" and may not have a beeper, pager or any other device during the programs, she said.

"We have zero tolerance for fighting," she explained. "There are no excuses. One violation and you're home for a week. (After that) you just sneeze wrong and you're gone for the year. And there will be no mouthiness.

"Parents need to know we have a safe environment. The kids can get their aggressions out and then go home and have dinner."

Ditto for the (slightly) older folks. Under the direction of Doreen Alati , the women's aerobics program has proven quite popular, Ms. Kotlarz said.

"We found women were being ignored -- they weren't going to the gym," she said. "That's why we went to aerobics."

Rec supervisor Darrell Patterson said that all the programs "hit the ground running" this year, despite the fact that promotional fliers are still being distributed.

Many programs -- especially those at the 13th Street gym -- "keep kids off the streets," he said, allowing them to "come in and run off some of that stress."

"They're very popular," he said. "We'd rather have them in the center playing ball than on the streets getting in trouble."