So often in this space, I write about terrible things being done to — and sometimes by — the children of America. From sex trafficking to bullying, it is easy for a crime and justice writer to get mired in the all the negative surrounding our kids.
This time, let’s concentrate on the positive.
Any child psychologist will tell you young people crave attention, structure and discipline. Any cop on the beat will tell you there are plenty of kids who just don’t get it at home. Their parents are either too busy working to pay the bills, or their parents can’t pass it on because they never got it themselves.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of America is here to fill the gap. You can find a club in all 50 states. At last count, it served about 4 million children in big cities and small towns at dedicated Boys & Girls Club buildings or places such as schools, on Native American lands and at military bases.
I recently got involved in this wonderful organization and realized that what it does goes a tremendously long way to keeping kids on the right path, away from the criminal element and focused on hope for their futures. Sixty-five percent of the club’s members are from minority families, 47 percent come from single parent households, the majority of members are boys, but 45 percent are girls.
The club staff members check each child’s report card every quarter and, when they see trouble, a special after-school tutoring squad steps in. A certain grade level must be maintained before the child can be a member of the basketball, baseball, aquatic, karate or other athletic team. If a child is hungry, he or she is fed a hot meal; if an older member needs help for college, the club steps up to try to attract scholarships.
If the child has a unique challenge — for example, I met one young club graduate who had suffered with a terrible stutter at one point — the club offers encouragement and puts out the call to its web of volunteers to get the needed help.
If a family is unable to pay the nominal dues — perhaps they have multiple children in the home — the BGCA finds a way to subsidize them.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of America makes such a lifelong impression on these kids that a huge proportion of the 54,000 trained professional staffers nationwide were once club members themselves. Once a member, always a member.
During my visit to one of the most celebrated clubs, the Kips Bay Club in the Bronx, N.Y., beaming staff member Dwayne Lindo reminded me that singer/actress Jennifer Lopez got her start right there as part of the club’s renowned performing arts program. Lopez is still involved in the organization as one of its national spokespeople. Two-time Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington, also a New York Club alumnus, is another.
“The club is where I looked for hope, purpose and direction,” Washington says today. “That’s where I learned to dream — and to think big.”
Other now famous Boys & Girls Club members include Gen. Wesley Clark, who joined a club in Little Rock, Ark., as a boy and rose to become a four-star general and NATO supreme allied commander in Europe; Interior secretary and former Rep. Manuel Lujan, who joined the club started by his father in Santa Fe, N.M.; Shaquille O’Neal, who says he honed his basketball skills at a club in Newark, N.J., and has donated $1 million to build technology centers for the kids; actor Martin Sheen, who says he and six brothers practically grew up at the club in Dayton, Ohio, in the 1940s and ‘50s; and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, considered one of the greatest female athletes of the 20th century.
Joyner-Kersee was not only a member of a Boys & Girls Club in rough-and-tumble East St. Louis, Ill., she later opened another club there. She says the organization helped her from taking the wrong path in life and kept her focused on developing her potential.
Many former members are active in fundraising, which is where most of the club’s money comes from. The weakened economy has meant some funds have dried up, but still Staples donates school supplies to the tutoring programs, and Microsoft and IBM give computers and keep them running. Coca-Cola sponsors nutrition programs, and JCPenney generates millions of dollars for the clubs by urging customers to “round up” their bill at checkout. Bank of America helps the clubs feed hungry children.
This isn’t a solicitation for money, although I can’t think of a more worthwhile cause.
The organization’s motto is: “Boys & Girls Clubs believe every child has the potential to BE GREAT. Clubs strive to build caring, responsible citizens … to create a positive place full of hope and opportunity for every child.”
Sounds great to me, and I wanted you to know. Its programs such as these that can break the cycle of young people turning to crime.