Our community has seen several nonprofits fumble and fail in recent years. But there’s a relatively young organization that is off and running in impressive style, and its mission is on target with two of the community’s key needs – keeping children out of gangs and other bad behavior and increasing the number of teens who graduate from high school.
In August, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Stanislaus County opened for business, if you will, at two elementary schools in the Sylvan district in north Modesto. There are now more than 200 children participating in the after-school activities at Coleman F. Brown and Sylvan campuses. The daily agenda includes a snack, the Power Hour (homework time) and fun and fitness activities laced with some educational themes. This week, for instance, one group studied designs for the most aerodynamic paper airplanes.
“We kind of trick them into learning and they go with it,” says Jamilah Barnes with a laugh. She’s the program coordinator at C.F. Brown Elementary, where 118 first- through fifth-graders were in the program as of Thursday. Barnes came from a Boys & Girls Club in Sacramento and, previously, a probation department position in Los Angeles that involved working with junior-high-age children who were already in trouble. With the Boys & Girls Club, the goal is to reach children at a younger age so they will never be in the juvenile justice system.
From the street, the Boys & Girls Club activities might look like just another after-school program, but there are some key distinctions.
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First, although the cost is a phenomenally low $10 per year, parents are expected to volunteer five hours per month. One hour is a mandatory parent meeting; the other hours can be put in working alongside staff during homework or activities. One parent walked out of the orientation, saying the five-hour commitment was too much to ask, Barnes recalls. That, of course, is one of the societal problems that begs for programs such as this.
Most parents are fine with the commitment. Carrie Bleau was volunteering at the Brown campus on Thursday. She said she is a stay-at-home mom and her husband has a full-time job. Their second-grade daughter likes the activities, and they see the potential for her to grow and have fun.
Another key distinction is the emphasis on character and leadership. This is a please-and-thank-you environment. Children are Miss Susie and Mr. Dylan. Staff have the same courtesy titles.
Even more important, the youngsters are encouraged to think about choices. One boy, sitting with several others at the cafeteria table during Power Hour, looked distracted. Barnes signaled for him to come over.
“What is the best way for you to get your homework done?” she asked him. He told her he thought he needed a quieter place to work, so she called a staff member in one of the classrooms and said the boy was headed that way to complete his assignment.
In the long run, the success of the Boys & Girls Club will be measured in the numbers of students who go on to graduate from high school and head into college or productive positions. In the short run, Barnes suggests, it can be measured in a little boy who initially responded to directions with profanity. Those words have almost disappeared, and now, even with occasional reminders, he is using please and thank you.
As we’ve noted before, a group of community heavy-hitters worked largely behind the scenes to get this club launched. It was, in part, a reaction to the closure of the YMCA in 2009, but also part of a sense that something had to be done to help our agriculture-based community grow the most important crop of all – productive young people.
Nationally, Boys & Girls Clubs have a strong reputation and an effective formula. We’re pleased to see the Stanislaus organization up and running.