Merced Boys & Girls Club gets 5 more years at McCombs center

tmiller@mercedsunstar.comDecember 4, 2013 

— When it comes to the Boys & Girls Club of Merced County’s daily routine, James Jacklitsch has many favorites.

“Gym and Power Hour,” the 8-year-old said, referring to dodgeball and the time set aside to finish homework. “Oh, actually science is one of my favorites too.”

James, who was in the center Wednesday, said after school he jumps in the car and his grandpa drives him to the McCombs Youth Center, the home of the club.

James is one of the scores of children who pass through the club almost every day, taking advantage of the programs available to children from first through 12th grades.

Young people and the services provided to them have been a hot topic in Merced, especially during campaign debates leading to the November election.

To that end, the Merced City Council this week unanimously approved a five-year extension for the club’s use of the 17,405-square-foot McCombs Youth Center, 615 W. 15th St. The city has agreed to support the club with $35,000 for the fiscal year, the same amount it has contributed every year since 2007.

The city’s contribution is almost half what it was paying before the economic downturn across the state and the nation. The city was contributing $60,000 to the Boy & Girls Club as recently as 2006.

Tony Slaton, the club’s executive director, said a large part of his job is consumed with raising the money to keep the center operating.

“You can’t serve kids (if) you don’t have the resources to do it,” Slaton said. “It’s not a formula that works.”

Slaton said 45 to 55 children are in the center every day during the school year, and the number can get as high as 130 during the lazy days of summer. He said the McCombs Center is more than just a place to keep children out of trouble.

The center works with children to improve literacy, health, character, leadership and to reach other goals. Slaton said the educational focus is primarily on the children from first through eighth grades, with high school students often take on a tutoring role.

“We’ve honed in on some very specific needs of young people in the Merced community,” Slaton said, adding children often get one-on-one instruction.

The city has worked with the Boys & Girls Club since it opened in 1994, by providing a home in the Stephen Leonard Clubhouse. Then the club moved to the McCombs Youth Center in 2002.

“The Boys & Girls Club provides an important service to the youth of our community and we are glad to work with them through the years,” said Mike Conway, who oversees the Parks and Recreation Department.

The city has also teamed with the club in summer program Camp McCombs, a gang-intervention program and Trunk or Treat at Halloween, among other programs.

The city isn’t the only contributor to the club, which gets funding from various grants, organizations and fundraisers.

The United Way of Merced County funded the club to the tune of about $6,000 last year, according to Executive Director Carol Bowman. The recreational, educational and other classes offered in the center are an important part of giving children something constructive to do with otherwise idle hands, she said.

“They are busy after school; they have a place to go,” she said. “There are worthwhile activities for them to engage in. There’s adult supervision.”

The club will also see some growth this year. Slaton said he and two other staff members are in the midst of leadership training that looks at sustainability, expansion and service in the community.

Support from the city is an important part of the program, Slaton said. The extended lease shows the city is taking steps to make children a priority, he said. “It’s going to take all of us to really change this community to a community that is more youth-centered, that has more opportunities for young people,” he said.

The coming year will also be the 20th anniversary of the club in Merced, and Slaton said the nonprofit will roll out special events in celebration of that milestone. “It’s going to be a big year for us,” he said.

Also in the center Wednesday was a 13-year-old identified only as Cameron. The eighth-grader said he gets off the bus every afternoon and goes straight to the center, where he takes part in science projects, games and a number of other programs.

“Just about everything is fun, and the staff members are nice,” he said.

Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or tmiller@mercedsunstar.com.

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