By Rosalie Tirella
Rose and her kid sisters with their Bapy – during the Girls Club years!
The Girls Club, now called Girls Inc, located on Vernon Hill – it was my summer sanctuary when I was a little girl growing up in Green Island. Last week it was temporarily closed. Shut down right before summer vacation because of … adult incompetence. The executive director was always detached from the kids – didn’t run the old clubhouse with any heart or intelligence – even though she had a passel of degrees and certificates and often got herself into the newspaper for this or that funding/grant. She made herself seem indispensable to the future of Worcester girls. But that was a lie. There were never many girls at Girls Inc. I used to drive by my old clubhouse and see 20 or so kids leaving the building in the afternoons. Even during summer vacation when there should have been scores of programs running for girls.
As a Girls Club-Winthrop House alumna, I remember the Girls Inc of my childhood. The very same building but pre-renovations. We’d have 100, 150 girls running around in that big two-story brick building every day during school summer vacation. It was a real clubhouse – not an Inc. A Girls CLUB for so many of us girls living on Vernon Hill, Union Hill, in Green Island, even South Worcester. And not just for the hoi polloi: middle-class parents from the Burncoat neighborhood would drive their girls across the city to the Winthrop House, for the day, for the excellent sewing or crocheting classes or the lifeguard certification program.
What was happening inside Girls Inc, my old Girls Club clubhouse, all these years? When was the lousy director finally recognized for her ineptitude and put on leave? Why have the directors temporarily closed Girls Inc, a once grand Worcester tradition? How and why did the dream all go to pot?
I’ll venture a guess or two: it began when the Girls Club became an Inc, as in no longer a Club, a fun clubhouse for girls. It became a business for molding them into future scientists, engineers, doctors blah, blah, blah. STEM. STEAM. Pick your trendy title – as if smart girls weren’t applying to pre-med colleges or engineering schools until Girls Inc showed up. (The majority of medical students in America are female.) The Boys Club of America begins to take in girls as members in the 1990s and, nationally, rebrand the organization as the Boys and Girls Club of America. The Girls Club, nationally, sues over the name change – it sounded like the Girls Club of America had merged with the Boys Club of America. But the girls lost. So they rebranded, too. The name was changed from Girls Club to boring Girls Inc.
Like developing girls minds and bodies was a hum drum business! Like girls were plastic chips in some grey desktop computer. No wonder membership declined in Worcester! No wonder the Winthrop House became uninspiring!
When Mrs. Miller ran the Girls Club Winthrop House years ago, during my girlhood, she achieved excellent results through COMMON SENSE AND FUN ACTIVITIES. We had home economics, athletics, music, games, cookouts, fashion shows, relay races and a ton of other activities. ALL FOR GIRLS. No boys allowed. A CLUBHOUSE RUN BY AND FOR FEMALES, ages 18 to 50-something. WE MEMBERS WERE EXPECTED TO LEARN, ACHIEVE AND BE STRONG – while having fun, using our imaginations. We were unencumbered by today’s trendy educational jargon that is now such a big part Girls Inc. Our executive director never ran a boring clubhouse! For only about 30 kids in the afternoons!
I was a Girls Club member – at the same Winthrop House building – during the 196Os and 1970s. (There was another Girls Club clubhouse on Lincoln Street, now the Nativity School for boys.) Being a member of the Girls Club was a high point in my Green Island girlhood. Especially the summers, Monday thru Friday, 9 a to 3 p, during school vacation. For two whole months. Before she walked to work at the dry cleaners, our mother walked us kids up steep Vernon Street to the Girls Club every morning and at 3 p came down in a taxi cab to pick us up and take us home. I don’t know how she did it, what with 60 hours a week at the dry cleaners, caring for her elderly mother, raising us three girls alone, a working-poor single mom exhausted at the end of her day … but she did. We kids never missed a day at the clubhouse. We were always ready to have a good time there, couldn’t wait for our day to start. Looking back, I think executive director Mrs. Miller liked and respected my mother – knew what “Ma” was up against and tried to help us. She was always so nice to Ma; our mother paid next to nothing for our club membership and summer dues. Mrs. Miller was silently cheering on CECELIA Tirella. And on days when my girl cousin went to the girls club – often for sewing and knitting class – our Uncle Mark drove us home to Lafayette Street before he and my cousin drove back to my Aunt Mary and their family’s cute Burncoat cottage. Uncle Mark was a school principal and a bit snobbish and very protective of his only daughter – his “Polish Princess.” He didn’t want his beautiful girl running around with a bunch of Vernon Hill girls whose parents worked in factories or whose dads were security guards. Girls with moms who may have been “on welfare.” His daughter “Louise” took her special home economics classes on certain days and was whisked home by Daddy at the end of the day.
Back then the Girls Club, nationally and locally, was just for girls. No boys allowed. Empowering!! And there was No STEM stuff, even though a lot of my clubhouse friends, including my cousin, were all A’s in math and science. Many of the girls at the Girls Club went on to become nurses, one a nurse at Mass General – in ER – the highest paid nursing position for the best and brightest nurses. Our Girls Club was not grammar school or junior high, part 2. It was meant to be a totally different experience from school – freeing, musical, aquatic, entertaining, physical, even girly.
Not school – a place where we kids all worked hard and our teachers were serious – but a CLUBHOUSE.
Our Mrs. Miller was the opposite of what they’ve got in there now. She was publicity averse and not great looking. She was tall and wore black-rimmed eye glasses. Her work attire? Simple cotton dresses past her knees and Keds sneakers. She dedicated her life to the clubhouse and girls. She was in the middle of it all – all the time – walking the clubhouse hallways, smiling, watching, making sure none of us girls were “lolligagging”! We girls were not supposed to be dawdling one bit – hanging around in the hallways or stairwells doing nothing. Mrs. Miller always brought us to the big bulletin board downstairs where construction paper balloons in all colors were pinned to the days of the week. In the balloons, printed in black magic marker: a fun activity and the time it took place and its room #. Like making a change purse out of vinyl, sewing it by hand all by yourself – one of the many activities that the clubhouse offered in arts and crafts class. We had a major swimming pool with diving board and lifeguards, a game room, kitchen for cooking classes, knitting classes, crocheting classes, sewing classes – beginning and advanced. We had drama class, gym time, beauty parlor, even a terrific library! What A BEAUTIFUL GIRLS CLUBHOUSE! JUST FOR US GIRLS!
We had fun baking peanut butter cookies with a young staffer in our club kitchen…a few cookies for us kids and a few to take home to our parents. I was sewing skirts and floppy beach hats in my beginners sewing class run by an amazing teacher who knew everything about rayon linings, working with silk, cutting patterns, matching seams…a sweet old lady who ran the most impressive sewing room. The sewing machines always clean and beautiful and modern….all lined up in a row. The teacher always dressed so adorably. Supplies neatly arranged in big closets. You could eat off that sewing room floor – that’s how immaculate our teacher kept her sewing room. My cousin was a talented seamstress. I sucked at sewing. But our teacher never got mad at me for my zig-zaggy seams or my loose bobbins – for me not being my talented and beautiful older cousin. She’d say to all her less than stellar students when we messed up: “Oh, you bad cookie!” and give us her beautiful smile and a hug. She had white hair that fell in soft curls around her neck.
We had a music room with three or four upright pianos, each in its own practice room. My cousin played the piano, and together we’d go into a practice room, sit on the long piano bench and Louise would play a ’70s radio hit like RAIN DROPS KEEP FALLING ON MY HEAD. Together we’d sing – high and dramatically – and think we were Judy Collins. There was a beauty parlor room down the long hallway where you could paint your nails and a friend could roll your hair in plastic curlers. Then you could sit under the big hair dryers that weren’t plugged in/didn’t work but were the real thing – just like at the beauty parlor your mom went to. Our library was staffed by a retired librarian, an older lady who reminded me of my Bapy. It was a hushed place where you could read one of the many books or color pictures that the librarian gave you, along with a box of colored pencils. So relaxing! Or you could ask the librarian, grey haired and buxom, for a Kodak View Master and a round disk with pictures in it. Click, click, click …you sat by the big picture window in the library, looking into the sky, looking thru your View Master as if it were a small pair of binoculars – to see real color photographs of animals or cities or the Milky Way galaxy. You pulled the little tab down at the right and Click! you saw another slide, another photograph of a lion or tiger or a planet or the Lincoln Memorial or the colosseum in Rome. Educational but in a very quiet way.
We had a gym on the first floor, adjacent to the pool, where girls could play basketball, dodge ball, even a game of jacks – and roller skate to music because we had a kick-ass p.a. system. Ahh, the Rolling Stones. My kid sister loved to roller skate in the gym, on its periphery, with the other girls, to I CAN’T GET NO SATISFACTION! blaring thru the speakers.
Arts and Crafts in the game room led by the diminutive and fun Mrs. Bousquet if you were searching for something to do. She was always sweet and fun and loved making things out of toilet paper rolls. Once a week you brought in a raw hamburger patty to Mrs. B and she’d refrigerate it along with the others, and then come lunch time she’d put the hamburgers in a dome-shaped grill with those black briquettes doused with lighter fluid, and we girls would have a real cookout in the back of the Girls Club, in the parking lot. Haven’t seen a clubhouse cookout there in decades – now cars and vans are parked in that once magical space where a bunch of us girls sat on the hard cement eating our hamburgers and talking with Mrs. B. as she worked the grill, expertly flipping our hamburgers for us and cooking up a tasty burger for herself even, which she ate sitting along side us kids on the cement stair.
A Gingerbread House program in a big classroom was upstairs for girls 5 and 6, mostly kindergartners. My kid sisters and I started out at the clubhouse in the Gingerbread House – five days a week, all summer. It was warm in that room and you felt a little confined and you were so small! But you learned the club house rules and couldn’t wait to come back next summer when you could run around with the other girls and have the entire Girls Club to explore and call your own.
My kid sisters and I went to the Winthrop House Girls Club every day in the summer, during school vacation, sometimes Saturdays, from kindergarten to the 7th grade. A million activities. Every program and class staffed by wonderful women. The high point of our month? The show. On stage. In our clubhouse auditorium. A bunch of girls were practicing for days and would put on a musical in our auditorium, wearing costumes they made, dancing to songs we loved, the choreography all their own. High-spirited, pretty girls singing and dancing to a truncated SOUTH PACIFIC. “I’m gonna wash that man right outa my hair!” they’d sing, gyrating in their crepe-paper hula skirts, worn over their shorts or kulats. Sometimes there was a raffle at the end of the show, and one year my favorite teacher, a beautiful nursing student at St Vincent School of Nursing, right across the street on Providence Street, won a gorgeous pair of white bell bottom jeans with the red Coca-Cola logo printed all over them. She went nuts when her ticket number was called, and I can still see her running to the stage, her long chestnut hair shining so bright, screaming and being all girly dramatic. We other girls joined right in and clapped and got so emotional! To this day I still want to win, at some raffle, an identical cool pair of white bell bottom jeans with that terrific red Coca-Cola logo printed all over the legs, waist and bum. But first I need to lose about 35 lbs.
That’s what the Girls Club on Winthrop Street was like when I was kid – before it became Girls Inc. The same staff every year and the same girls. We were a family, growing up together.
All of that is gone. Today the fancy people with their fancy PhDs and lady power suits and their deep understanding of female psychology and love of female doctors and computer programmers run the Winthrop House Girls Inc. And they’ve turned it into a real dump.