[Noozhawk’s note: This article is one in a series sponsored by the Hutton Parker Foundation.]
Inside the entrance to the Boys & Girls Club facility on Seaway Drive in Goleta sits a large glass jar filled with vibrantly colored stones. The stones — or “jewels,” as they are referred to by club members and staff — are given to the children when they show respect and responsibility, two behaviors that are at the core of the club’s fee-based after-school program for kids kindergarten through sixth grade.
Earning the jewels isn’t necessarily easy. Children must demonstrate random acts of kindness, speak respectfully to one another, and perform extra tasks around the club. They collect and store their stones in small plastic hardware boxes labeled with their names. At the end of the day, they greet their parents by showing them their handfuls of well-earned “jewels.”
“Our younger ones like to count their jewels each day,” said Anne Vierra, the after-school program’s director. “One of our parents said that it is how his child learned to count.”
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The end-all is when the door to the Jewel Store opens. From the small closet lined with snacks, small toys and other prizes, the children get to choose a prize based on the jewels they’ve earned.
“The kids love it,” said Vierra, noting that the positive reinforcement really works.
The after-school program, operated by the Goleta Boys & Girls Club under the umbrella of the United Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Barbara County, is housed in buildings located in a bucolic area off of Storke Road adjacent to the Pacific Ocean. (The Goleta Boys & Girls Clubhouse is located in Old Town Goleta at 5701 Hollister Ave.)
For a fee of $70 a week (the Goleta clubhouse’s annual membership fee is just $20), the after-school program offers fun, educational activities and is spearheaded by Vierra, a veteran of the Goleta Boys & Girls Club.
“I began in May of 1982 as the summer camp director,” Vierra told Noozhawk.
Even though she’s in her 30th year with the program, the word “retirement” doesn’t even cross her lips. Her earnest face and warm smile match the sparkle in her eyes, a sparkle that still shines bright even after three decades of dedicated, focused and tireless work.
The number of long-term staff at the United Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Barbara County is a credit to the organization as a whole. The employees’ commitment, passion and dedication not only enhance the lives of kids, they create the United Boys & Girls Clubs’ excellent reputation and serve to keep the entire organization stable and strong. Over and over again, employees say that the rewarding work at the United Boys & Girls Clubs is what keeps them there.
Sal Rodriguez, the man who gave Vierra her start by allowing her to develop the after-school program, is now a retired volunteer but was once a longtime employee himself. First introduced to the club as a young boy in 1955, he was hired there after he graduated from college, but soon was drafted into military service during the Vietnam War. When he returned, he became unit director, a position he held for 20 years, and then executive director for another 13. In all, he has spent 57 years involved with the Boys & Girls Clubs and is still going strong.
“The bottom line is that I’ve been blessed,” he said. “I’ve had a great career and a great run. I know that I’ve influenced a lot of lives and that’s very important to me.”
In fact, the name Sal Rodriguez is almost synonymous with the club.
“When Sal retired from the Boys & Girls Club, there was a line of people at his retirement celebration waiting for their chance at the microphone to say how much he meant to them and how he had changed their lives,” said Randy Weiss, community relations officer at Santa Barbara Bank & Trust. “Sal is an incredible human being. He’s like a hero. He’s helped so many kids, had fun with them and kept them on course. Community gifts like Sal are rare.”
Rich Medel, unit director for the Carpinteria Boys & Girls Club, is in his 40th year of working with the club. He has operated the Carpinteria club under the philosophy of “build it and they will come,” and they have.
Medel is renowned in Carpinteria as a determined man with an affable way.
“Teachers, coaches, they are the keys,” he explained. “It is all about the relationship the staff has with the kids. As the children get older, these are the people they’ll remember. I feel that I’ve really built this place with the help of the community.”
It’s that sense of pride for doing something so good for the Carpinteria community that has kept Medel involved with United Boys & Girls Clubs for nearly 40 years.
Another longtime employee, Bob Thompson, Goleta sports director, has been at the Goleta Boys & Girls Club for more than 16 years.
“Bob’s the reason that I took my job,” said Joe Roderick, unit director of the Goleta Boys & Girls Club. “I’ve always wanted to work with him. He does a lot for the kids and he’s always a very positive, loving, caring person.”
At the Lompoc Boys & Girls Club, unit director Dena Kern has been at the club for more than 12 years and a volunteer for three years before that.
“I stay at the club because I love it,” she said. “We make a difference and we make a great impact on our individual communities. In Lompoc, we have a great community that supports the things we do, and we’ve been able to connect those dots and make better things happen, including closing the achievement gap.”
Bernard Hicks, teen director and athletic director of the Santa Barbara West Club, has five children of his own who have gone through the Goleta or Santa Barbara West clubs. He has seen firsthand the worthwhile effects of the United Boys & Girls Club on families, which may be, in part, why he has been affiliated with the organization for more than 30 years.
“I’ve always been interested in helping kids be the best they can be,” he said. “This was a perfect marriage for me.”
When asked why he’s stayed so long at the Goleta Boys & Girls Club, Roderick repeats a familiar refrain.
“I love what I do,” he said. “The thing that I enjoy the most is making a difference in these kids’ lives. I like to watch them grow over the years and go off to two- or four-year colleges. And, even when they’re gone, a lot of the them still come back to visit.”
Roderick points to a glass-enclosed alumni case on the wall. He names some of the well-known alumni from the United Boys & Girls Clubs, like Denver Nuggets and former Dos Pueblos High basketball star Julyan “Ju Ju” Stone.
“It’s all about the relationships,” he said. “Our biggest job here is building relationships with the kids. First, we build the relationship and learn what motivates the child. Then, we start leading them on the right path and in the right direction.”
The employees’ unending passion for their work, their commitment to changing children’s lives and their dedication to seeing that the children are headed in the right direction no matter how long the hours, is what makes the United Boys & Girls Club such an excellent place for kids and a first-rate community asset. It’s not hard to see that it is the employees, whether long-term or short-, who are the real jewels of the United Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Barbara County.
Click here for more information on the United Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Barbara County, or call 805.681.1315. Click here to make an online donation to help the clubs meet their goal of raising $300,000 in 60 days.
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