Boys and Girls: Join the Club

By Lou D'Allesandro, Michael Wool and Mary Alice McKenzie

Club members receiving homework help in Burlington, Vt.

Boys & Girls Clubs of America count 4,000 community-based clubs serving more than 4 million young people through membership and community outreach. They provide a safe place to spend time during non-school hours and the summer as an alternative to the streets or being home alone—a place to play, have fun and learn.

Boys & Girls Clubs began in New England, when in 1860 three women in Hartford, Conn, organized the first club because they believed “boys who roamed the streets should have a positive alternative.” Nearly 50 years later, several Boys Clubs decided to affiliate and the Federated Boys Clubs was formed in Boston with 53 member organizations. In 1990, the group’s name was changed to Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

The New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) sees New England’s Boys & Girls Clubs as key potential partners to instill college aspirations and preparation among the young people who participate in activities at the venerable community organization. N.H. state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro and Burlington, Vt. lawyer Michael Wool (with an assist from Boys & Girls Club of Burlington Executive Director Mary Alice McKenzie), are two NEBHE board members who are passionate champions of the organization. They take a closer look at the challenges and innovations at two New England Boys & Girls Clubs: Boys & Girls Club of Manchester, N.H. and Boys & Girls Club of Burlington, Vt.


Vital in New Hampshire

Lou D’Allesandro

The Boys & Girls Clubs of America are a vital asset to our nation’s youth. New Hampshire’s own Boys & Girls Club of Manchester is one of the organization’s 53 original agencies, incorporated in 1907 as a private, nonprofit serving youth from ages 6 to 18.

The clubs seek to reach out to all youth, with special concern given to those most in need. They provide programs and services that inspire and enable members to realize their full potential as productive, responsible and caring individuals. A program staff of 12 full-time youth development professionals works directly with the children, providing help with homework, computer instruction, conflict resolution education, peer pressure resistance training and a variety of other programs and activities. Providing the children with this safe place to learn and grow and giving them the opportunity to develop these ongoing relationships with caring adult professionals enables them to develop strong character and skills that will help them succeed in the future. Nearly 2,500 members were served by the Boys & Girls Club of Manchester during the 2010-11 school year.

The core programs offered by the clubs are divided into five areas: Character and Leadership Development; Education and Career Development; Health and Life Skills; The Arts, and Sports; and Fitness and Recreation.

The Character and Leadership Development program empowers youth to support and influence their club and community, sustain relationships with others, develop a positive self-image and respect their own and others’ cultural identities.

The Education and Career Development program enables youth to become proficient in fundamental educational disciplines, apply learning to everyday situations and embrace technology. The Power Hour Program and Homework Helpers are two examples of programs that encourage education and career development.

In 2005, the club initiated a Building Better Lives Capital Endowment Campaign with the goal of expanding and renovating the main clubhouse. The initiative was made successful, in large part, by a $1 million donation from actor Adam Sandler. Sandler, a Manchester native and former member of the Boys & Girls Club, said he had many fond memories of his time spent at the club. This money was especially crucial to the organization as it helped it launch fundraising efforts for the expansion project. The significance of Sandler’s donation is that he never forgot where he came from and the difference the Boys & Girls Club made in his life. His is just one example of how the Manchester Boys & Girls Club makes a lasting impact on the lives of the children it serves.

In addition to its main clubhouse, the Manchester Boys & Girls Club also includes two successful afterschool programs located at two of the city’s elementary schools. The afterschool sites operate Monday through Friday until 6 p.m. The main clubhouse is open Monday through Thursday from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. and until 10 p.m. on Fridays, providing young people with a safe environment in which to engage in a variety of activities.

The new design of the facility allows the club to offer a new delivery-of-service format with more program structure. This helps in tracking individual member program participation, which will help determine the impact the club is having on its members. Education and academic success is a large part of this initiative. The club now offers a half-hour mandatory homework time each day for all members. It also offers special homework help and tutoring for those members who need extra support. The club tracks its members’ progress and issues progress report cards.

It is an ongoing challenge to instill the importance of education among our youth. The programs offered by the Boys & Girls Club seek to do just that. Education is essential in gaining the knowledge and skills to succeed in a continually changing and competitive world. Those who are taught to value education at an early age are most likely to seek a higher education in the future. An important aspect of building hope and opportunity among our youth is the discussion of what education can do as we mature and move ahead. At the Boys & Girls Club, children learn the importance of higher education while developing the skills, confidence and hope they need to pursue their goals.

A hard-working mentor who is invested in the future of our children is a truly invaluable resource. The knowledge that can be gained at this organization can lead to infinite opportunities for our youth. As the U.S. continues to evolve, the importance of education is intensified. As President John F. Kennedy said, “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.” The work that the Manchester Boys & Girls Club does to prepare its members for higher education is key to offering the young people an opportunity to achieve the American dream. Strengthening the correlation between boys and girls clubs and higher education will only enhance this opportunity as we all strive for a better future.



Knowing How to Go in Burlington

Michael Wool and Mary Alice McKenzie

Board members of the Boys & Girls Club in Burlington, Vt., in 2005-06 took an unflinching look around our club’s neighborhood and honestly concluded that as a community we were all failing the children most in need of our help. The club’s board members recognized that it is wonderful to keep kids safe and provide them with healthy and fun programs during the afterschool hours. However, have we really done right by these children if they are not ultimately succeeding in becoming self-supporting adults?

What we saw was that the children who were coming to the club were children of former Boys & Girls Club kids and they were experiencing lives that were economically worse than their parents’ lives had been. In short, we acknowledged that the generational poverty that had always existed in our neighborhoods had significantly deepened.

As we analyzed the situation further, we discovered that a very small percentage of our club kids attended any postsecondary education after graduating from high school. There were other reasons for the worsening poverty in the families but the lack of adequate education was a common theme. Currently, 40% of our club kids identify themselves as other than Caucasian. In the neighborhoods we serve there are 19 different languages spoken. We have children from Somalia, Sudan, Nepal, Bhutan, Turkey, Iraq and many other countries. The diversity of our club kids is much different from the diversity of Vermont. Burlington is the site of a Refugee Resettlement Office and therefore we have a much higher percentage of New American children than the rest of the State. The board decided that the Boys & Girls Club could play a critical role in helping our club kids prepare for and commit to accessing postsecondary education or training so that they too could better participate in the American Dream. As a result, our “Know How To Go” program was born.

We realized some successes with Know How To Go. We help numerous club kids access college. However we learned many hard lessons along the way. We learned that starting our program at the 6th grade level was way too late. By the time we started talking with kids in the 6th grade about their plans for the future, too many of them were already so alienated from education that it was impossible to effectively re-engage them. We also learned that by the time they had reached 6th grade, many of the kids had experienced academic failure to such an extent that they entered the 6th grade with the expectations that they would fail. We also learned that many of our children were not learning about the importance of homework while they were in the K through 5th grades and when they entered 6th grades they could not compete with their better-prepared peers.

We also learned that even if our kids graduated from high school with grades adequate to be accepted into college, these kids could not handle college level work so they became overwhelmed and dropped out. The bottom line was that we learned that if we were to be serious about this effort we needed to raise serious and sustainable funds, we needed to dedicate more resources to hiring educationally qualified staff, we needed to retool our program to begin at the earliest age we serve kids and we needed to forge relationships with schools and teachers.

We spent a year redesigning our program and in fall 2011 we introduced our new educational effort: the Boys & Girls Club Early Promise Program. Our Early Promise Program begins at the kindergarten level and follows club kids through the grades and into postsecondary education. Our program includes homework help for all club kids, intensive tutoring through Sylvan Learning Centers, a less intensive but equally important Reading Buddies effort with the help of many college students and mentors, and small group tutoring conducted by club staff who are also licensed teachers.

We also have a very strong partnership with the Vermont State College System (VSC) and with St. Michael’s College. The VSC is an active participant in helping us find the appropriate higher education venue for our club kids who graduate from high school. We also work very closely with the colleges on helping club kids easily access all the remedial help available so that they can better develop the academic skill they need in order to perform college-level work. St. Michael’s is helping us on two important aspects of our Early Promise Program. The St. Michael’s Education Department is developing a curriculum design that includes incorporating their education students into our Early Promise Program. In addition, St. Michael’s is helping us collect, organize and analyze our data so that our program is credible and useful as we learn more about how to help low-income children rise above the poverty level through effective education.

We know our efforts are in their infancy. We know that we will need to constantly reassess our program in order to get the results we want for our children. We recognize that breaking the cycle of poverty through education is a long-term goal that is hard to achieve. However, we are every bit as passionate about helping our children succeed against so many odds as we were when we embarked on this journey. Perhaps we are even more passionate now that we have witnessed first-hand how many obstacles are thrown in front our children by the well-intentioned but increasingly disenfranchising system of public education that our children experience. One thing we know for sure is that every one of our children matters, and we are absolutely committed to doing whatever it takes to help them achieve the education needed for a self-sustaining life in the America of today.


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