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story.lead_photo.caption Under the watchful eye of Clint Stratman, Kaiden Duncan performs a series of leg pushes Friday at the Firley YMCA. In an effort to encourage positive development and a healthy discipline, eighth grade students are invited to join the Jefferson City YMCA free of charge for a one-year membership. Duncan, a Lewis and Clark Middle School student was among the first to sign up for the program, and Friday saw him receive an orientation and run-through from Stratman. Photo by Julie Smith / News Tribune.

The Jefferson City YMCA has a new program that offers free access to all three local YMCA facilities for all area eighth-graders, with the free memberships to last through July 31, 2020, and plans for the program to continue after that.

YMCA Membership Director Isaac Williams said there is a similar, national program for seventh-graders, but the local program for eighth-graders instead is a better fit for usage of the local facilities.

Williams said the Missouri Credit Union has sponsored a portion of the program, but the rest of it is in-house funding.

"We feel that eighth grade — that's an age that kids are 13, 14 years old — they're starting to make a lot of life decisions about how they're going to act when they're older," Williams said of reason to focus on eighth-graders and give them a safe place to come learn healthy habits and spend time with friends.

He said the program — the "8th Grade Initiative," or 8GI — is open to any eighth-grader in the area, including public, private and parochial students, and from outlying areas including Holts Summit, St. Martins and Wardsville.

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"It hasn't been a huge number yet," he said of the number of students who've signed up, but he expects the number to grow once school starts.

Jefferson City Public Schools starts Aug. 27, and JCPS' Superintendent Larry Linthacum said at the August Board of Education meeting that the YMCA was at registration.

Kaiden Duncan, 13, who will be in the eighth grade at Lewis and Clark Middle School, was the first to register.

"I want to be able to weight lift with my friends, and maybe my dad," Duncan said.

Kaiden said he and his dad, Travis, used to come play basketball, and he's played tennis before, too.

He's never tried weightlifting before, though, and wants to get into it "because I just thought it'd be fun, and I could use it for my physical health."

"I'm always looking for things for him to do," mom Amber Duncan said, and the opening of enrollment to 8GI on Aug. 12 "was like perfect timing, really."

"I know he and his buddies coming here and learning fitness is a good thing," she said, adding that at the YMCA "they're staying out of trouble."

Williams anticipated there will be a kick-off event for the 8GI program featuring a pizza and pool party.

He said special programming as part of the initiative will include Missouri Credit Union doing a seminar on banking and basic budgeting; counselor Josh Varner speaking about self-care; nutrition classes; dodge-ball tournaments and other activities.

"We don't plan this to be a one-year deal," Williams said of the future of 8GI after July 31, 2020, adding the first year will be a chance to see what works.

To be part of 8GI during their eighth-grade year, a student and their parent or guardian must complete a membership application at any of the YMCA's three local facilities — Firley, Knowles or West. Proof of eighth-grade enrollment is also required, and students who are already YMCA members must enroll to participate in activities.

Registration will remain open during the school year.

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