Can you guess what the following people have in common? Jose Rivera, three-time world boxing champion; Harry Levenson, music conductor; Gary Gemme, Worcester police chief; Jim McGovern, congressman; and John J. Conte, former district attorney. If you guessed that they were once members of the 122-year Boys & Girls Club of Worcester, then you are correct. For more than a century, the Boys & Girls Club of Worcester has provided programs and services to the city’s most disadvantaged youth and many of the Club’s alumni are leaders in the community today.
Much has changed since the Club opened its doors in 1889 on the third floor of the Barton Place laundry building, and provided programming for young “wayward” boys. In 1914 the Boys Club of Worcester underwent a $162,000 capital campaign to find a permanent home and build a Clubhouse on Ionic Ave. At the time of its construction, the concept of a facility dedicated solely to youth was unheard of and considered cutting edge.
Girls began officially participating in Club activities in 1979, and their level of participation increased over the years as did the number of activities specifically geared toward girls. On January 25, 1991, the name of the organization was officially changed to the Boys & Girls Club of Worcester, formally recognizing girls’ membership at the Club.
In 1993, the Boys & Girls Club of Worcester began a pilot program with Great Brook Valley, the largest public housing project in New England. Initially, the Club’s involvement consisted of transporting 70 boys and girls from Great Brook Valley to the Ionic Ave. Clubhouse. By 1995, the Club, in conjunction with the Worcester Housing Authority, opened the doors to the Great Brook Valley unit to provide on-site programs, accessible to the over 1,000 youth who live there. Next, a service unit was developed in 2002 to respond to the needs of the kids living in Plumley Village, a low income housing development located near downtown Worcester. “The Club’s investment in Plumley Village and Great Brook Valley emphasizes its commitment and dedication to serving all of our city’s disadvantaged youth,” says Ron Hadorn, Executive Director.
In 2006, after a successful $9.5 million capital campaign, the Club moved from the aging Ionic Ave. building to a beautiful state-of-the art facility in the Main South section of the city. The new building is a testament to a community that embraces the Boys & Girls Club mission: “to help youth, especially those who need us most, develop the qualities needed to become responsible citizens and community leaders, through caring professional staff who forge relationships with our youth members and influence their ability to succeed in life.” Without the leadership and support from alumni, local businesses and foundations, Clark University, the Main South CDC and the city, the dream of a new building would have just remained that – a dream. The Main South facility is now a centerpiece of the Gardner-Kilby-Hammond project, a $35 million redevelopment plan to revitalize the neighborhood with new homes and athletic fields.
The Club’s 44,700 sq. ft. building incorporates multiple program areas including a learning center, technology lab, six-lane swimming pool, full-size gymnasium, games room, an arts suite, café, and preschool and school-age child care rooms. Thanks to the new facility, membership has more than doubled; it has grown from 1,350 youth in 2000 to over 4,000 members today. Average daily attendance has also increased from 175 to over 400.
The Boys & Girls Club of Worcester is a bustling place. At 3pm on a school day it’s filled with kids moving from the games room to the music room to the pool – and shouting greetings to their friends the whole time. But behind the laughter, and the kids being kids, some important services are being provided.
Many Club kids grapple every day with issues like high crime rates, cultural or language barriers, poverty, and lack of access to resources. Many are not safe for a good part of every day. These are issues that keep kids from doing well in school, and can prevent them from becoming healthy, responsible, and successful adults.
60% of Club members are from single-parent families, 83% are from minority ethnic groups, and 90% receive free or reduced-price lunch. Membership is only $25 per year, making the Club’s programs and services accessible to all youth. Rae Shawn, 15, is a member of the dance team, volunteers in the art room, and helps cook for Kid’s Café. He says, “Before the Club I used to go home and sleep after school, but now I have something fun to do.”
The Boys & Girls Club of Worcester offers a variety of programs that attract and engage youth. “People used to see us as just ‘gym and swim’, but we are more than that. This year over 97% of our graduating seniors are attending college. That’s due to our education and career development programs that really push our kids to be their best”, explains Ike McBride, Director of Clubhouse Operations, and former Club kid.
There’s creativity everywhere you look at the Club. At any one time there’s art, dance, music, creative writing, and digital arts going on. The dance team, In Da Zone, has a case full of trophies. A kid who is interested in music can take keyboard or drum lessons, and then record their efforts in the recording studio. The Boys & Girls Club expands kids’ horizons by exposing them to the arts, at a time when budget cuts are forcing schools to cut back on these programs.
The Club’s flagship educational program is Power Hour, where volunteers from local colleges, under direction from program staff, provide daily homework help and tutoring. Last school year, 90% of the children who participated in Power Hour every day saw improvements of at least one letter grade in at least one subject. The Club also exposes teens to college, with tours and counseling, and helps them figure out the maze of financial aid applications. And high school seniors can apply for several college scholarships offered by Club donors. Those members who choose to enter the workforce are provided resumé writing and interview technique training. The Club also hires teen members as program assistants, giving them valuable work experience, and a boost to their resume.
Perhaps the biggest “hook” attracting teens to the Club is the sports and fitness program. The kids play basketball, rehearse cheerleading routines, swim, or work out in the boxing ring, while at the same time developing stress management skills, social skills, and discipline. It has short-term benefits, too – several recent alumni are attending college on sports scholarships. Ricardo Sotomayor, a recent alum and scholarship winner, who is now a sophomore at Nichols College, agrees, “I thought to myself, if I can work this hard in the ring, why don’t I just apply it to my schoolwork too?”
The Boys & Girls Club believes that service rewards both those who give and those who receive. Members are offered a variety of volunteer opportunities including helping out in the locker room, mentoring younger members, or participating in community service projects. The kids learn responsibility for their Club and their community, helping them to become future leaders.
The Club’s health and life skills programs help kids get – and stay — on the right path, by giving them practical ways to behave positively. SMART Moves is just one of our programs that help members practice life skills for nutrition, handling finances, resolving conflicts, avoiding substance abuse, and building healthy relationships.
The Club also provides family support and outreach services. Case workers provide services from individual counseling to providing eyeglasses. Kids Café serves a nutritious meal to 250 kids three nights a week during the school year. The Club partners with the Worcester Police to help young people at risk of joining gangs by providing job training and counseling, and instilling a work ethic through boxing and other sports.
The Boys & Girls Club of Worcester has a successful 122-year record of providing a safe place for disadvantaged kids to learn and explore. Worcester is full of “movers and shakers” who learned at the Boys & Girls Club how to be productive members of their communities. Just ask Congressman Jim McGovern, Chief of Police Gary Gemme, or world champion boxer Jose Rivera how the Club helped them realize their potential!