Week 10: Delaware

 

PHOTO — Kindergarten and first-grade children celebrate Halloween at the Greater Newark Boys and Girls Club, where they enjoyed a Fall Fest that included plenty of candy and thrills.

 

 

The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned. -Maya Angelou[1]

A week that began with the howling of hurricane winds was appropriately concluded by shrieks of delight from 80 Newark children.

The source of glee was a belated Halloween festival held at the Greater Newark Boys and Girls Club, which sits on the outskirts of Newark, Delaware, but thrives as a community meeting point for children of all ages. Days after Hurricane Sandy gave Newark the slip despite a devastating forecast, I had gotten to know the childcare staff at the Boys and Girls Club and joined the fun by creating a haunted house in one of the offices. Thanks to room dividers, old decorations, a strobe light and creepy music, it was a hit.

The nation’s “first state” is the only one in which the Boys and Girls Club runs statewide, offering programs and services to low-income families in all three of Delaware’s counties. With nearly four million children served annually, Boys and Girls Clubs of America hold the impressive distinction of having more than half their alumni say the program “saved my life.”

“A good community is built around community centers, places the community can gather and rally around to make an open and welcoming and safe place for others to be a part of,” says Leslie McGowan, Volunteer Coordinator for Greater Newark Boys and Girls Club.

The club offers child care to children after school (85% who are on free or reduced lunch), and each night families pile into either the gym or pool area where there are basketball and swim leagues. With a number of special events, different neighborhoods engaged and volunteers supporting, the facility at One Positive Place is truly a community center.

“We have a group here that knows what they’re doing and wants to do it well,” says Stu Sherman, Executive Director. “There’s that sense of community and family here.”

The club may have survived Sandy, but it has taken as big a hit as anybody during the country’s ongoing economic struggles. While it still attempts to cover costs for its poorest members, the Greater Newark Boys and Girls Club can no longer offer free programs to go with its $15 membership, putting staff in awkward positions as they try to keep opportunities accessible to low-income families.

Local schools sometimes partner with Boys and Girls Clubs, but the Newark schools no longer send their school buses via the club – it isn’t out of the way, but they don’t want to justify privileging access to it over other after-school care options.

The thing is, it isn’t just any after-school care option. Plain and simple, in Sherman’s words: “This is the place where the highest-need children go.” Boys and Girls Clubs are affordable, safe places where under-served children experience a caring environment with role models they desperately need. The kids adore the staff at GNBGC, and they form meaningful relationships with volunteers, too.

After I spent an afternoon tutoring and playing “Just Dance 4” with a fourth-grader, she said to me, “You know, you remind me of my father.” She then revealed his absence and her difficult home life, and her appreciation of my presence and attention. As someone noted during my week in Newark, Woody Allen[2] was onto something when he said “Eighty percent of life is showing up.”

That makes the work of volunteers and the consistent, caring staff (who have very low turnover) all the more valuable. As Sherman, who has been with the club since it opened in 1994, points out, “If you’re going to talk about truly saving a kid’s life, that’s going to require a lot of individual attention. But you don’t get funding for individual attention anymore.”

Sherman yearns for further collaboration between well-intentioned groups, despite the competitive market for profit-sector dollars and their increasingly arduous donor-reporting hoops to jump through.

“There’s a lot of organizations out there that have similar missions but you wonder if everybody combined efforts… but “they” think “they’re” doing it a little better,” he says. “The governor came here and talked about education and didn’t mention us. I thought, ‘You really missed the boat. The kids whose grades you want to raise, where do you think they’re going after school? Who do you think is working with them?’”

One group the club enjoys great collaboration with is the Rotary Club, where Sherman is a member. I had the honor of speaking about Project Ubuntu at their meeting, where I preceded Norm Kennedy, Principal of Thurgood Marshall Elementary School. The Rotary Club built a butterfly garden at Marshall and also handed Kennedy a check for an additional $1,000 for a girl scout’s bronze service award project at the school. Three people at the meeting also donated to the club in honor of Project Ubuntu.

The Rotary Club sponsors the VSP program, a national Boys and Girls Club initiative in which willing eye doctors give free eye care and glasses to Boys and Girls Club members. The Rotary Club covers the $15 membership fee for any children who can’t afford it.

The club also funds the purchase of new children’s books, and I joined McGowan in a $400 spree at Barnes and Noble. Using the discount given to educators, we were able to purchase 52 books that fit the diverse range of reading abilities and ages represented at the Boys and Girls Club.

The woman ringing up our purchases was happy to hear where the books were going, and certainly most people would agree the cause is commendable. But if it were truly valued, one wonders if a lack of community investment of time, energy, skills and resources would exist.

Speaking of volunteer engagement, Sherman says, “It used to be when the economy was good that a middle manager being involved was a notch on their belt. It was an added incentive. I used to find out where every volunteer worked and wrote their bosses.

“But they don’t have bosses anymore that care. It’s not valued.”

In order to channel the resources we need to groups like the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, we have to prioritize concepts like service, giving and community. Sherman has seen the private sector shift from providing time and energy in abundance to writing a check and demanding much in return.

Yet even a few fleeting moments with a fourth-grader will remind you that the real value is in showing up.

 


[1] Maya Angelou (2010) “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes.” Random House Digital Inc. P. 196.

[2] William Safire (1992) “The First Dissident.” Toronto: Cobbett Corporation. See here.

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