MADISON, NJ – September is the time for back-to-school bocce ball.

The Madison Area YMCA’s 10thannual Charity Bocce Classic will run from Sept. 12 through Oct. 20, with all proceeds going to provide financial assistance to parents who cannot afford after-school care.

According to Sharon Kunas, development director, this is the first year that funds raised from the tournament have been earmarked specifically for the after-school program. She said the Y hopes to raise $12,000 from participant donations and sponsors.

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Between 20 percent and 25 percent of approximately 80 children enrolled receive some financial assistance for the program at the F.M. Kirby Children’s Center, according to the school’s executive director, Krys Jensen.

“With this economy, we’re finding more and more families that need help,” Jensen said. “It’s really important that we (early childhood) professionals help to bridge the gap between children who have access to quality programs, quality care, quality early education and those who are unable to access those programs.”

That’s where the bocce players come in, Kunas said. For a $75 donation (there are four on a team), individuals can participate in a sport that has been called Italian lawn bowling – and give to a charitable cause. The best part, according to Marketing Director Diane Werner, is the game is easy to play.

“You don’t have to know the game to participate,” Werner said. “We have teams where at least one member of the team has never picked up a bocce ball before.” Both children and adults can play, and Kunas said teams are often made up of families, of friends, of couples, and of employees of the tournament’s corporate sponsors, including Madison Honda. Past tournaments have drawn between 28 and 32 teams.

Spectators are welcome, too, and there is no admission charge. The games are played Monday through Thursday at the Forum Club, which is adjacent to the Madison Area Y. “We’re really happy to have an opportunity to do something in the community that is as unique as the bocce tournament,” Kunas said.

The after-school program supported by the bocce tournament provides “a safe and healthy” environment for children ranging from kindergarteners to those in the sixth grade, according to Jensen. Enrollment in the program is $655 a month for five days a week.

Jensen said that the Kirby Center program is more expensive than other types of care. “We’re providing a lot more,” she said. “The cost to provide transportation, the cost to maintain this facility and provide the kind of staff ratios and activities that we have.”

Among the more popular activities are the digital media project and the cooking classes. “We had a former ‘Kirby kid’ who is now studying culinary arts,” she said. “She came in and did some projects with the kids.”

Although it does not rank as high with the kids, “homework help is very popular with the parents,” Jensen said.

For more information about the bocce tournament, the after-school program, and other Madison Area Y programs and activities, visit http://www.madisonymca.org/index.php.