COLUMBIA — The Boys & Girls Club of Columbia needs and wants more space. First, the needs: The nonprofit club, which provides a supervised place for children from kindergarten through 12th grade to go before and after school, serves about 85 of them a day. Overall, the club serves about 300 children. But more than 100 others are on a waiting list.
The bathrooms in the building at 1002 Fay St., near Columbia College and Field Elementary School, were made for residential use, meaning they aren’t suited for the constant kid traffic. “We really need commercial plumbing,” said Megan Wadley, executive director since August.
Plate-sized holes have been patched so many times the wall literally crumbles shortly after each new repair job. Windows were recently fixed to lock properly, but in the way of old windows, they don’t necessarily stay open. One was recently cracked and is temporarily being covered with a trash bag.
And although some concerns such as leaky ceilings and drafts that let in cold (or hot) air have been addressed in a stopgap way, others remain. For example, nothing stops a ball from running into the street.
“We need a safer playground; the fence outside is no help,” said 12-year-old Dorothy, a seventh-grader at Lange Middle School who has been going to the clubhouse for three years. “Kids could get hit running after a ball into the street. It just isn’t right.” The Missourian has agreed not to run the last names of the children interviewed for this story, in accordance with a policy at the Boys & Girls Club.
Second, their wants: The teens want a separate space for themselves, away from the little kids.
“We have to make the teens want to come here or we won’t have any affect on them at all,” Wadley said. “We have a different kind of staff for our teenagers.
“Some kids see drug abuse, violence or gangs in their communities or at home with their families,” Wadley continued, “and if they’re going there after school instead of to the Boys & Girls Club, they are much more likely to get involved in that kind of bad behavior.”
Jordan Davis, the club’s teen director who has been there for three years, wants a gym. They use Field Elementary’s gym right now when the school isn’t using it. “If we could have a gym, maybe we could start a basketball team or a dance team. Usually kids involved in extra-curricular activities have an extra incentive to keep their grades up,” said Davis.
News that Field Elementary might close when a new elementary school opens in 2009 interested unit director Deronne Wilson, who works with the kids before and after school; there's a good amount of space there. But under the recommendation to close Field, the Columbia Public School District would turn Field into an early childhood center, and it’s unclear whether there would be a place for the Boys & Girls Club in that scenario.
The clubhouse’s indoor game room and classrooms share a wall of windows with the outdoor play area. “Common sense would tell you not to have so many windows in a place where balls are thrown,” said Wilson, who has been with the Columbia club for four years. “This building was not structured to support kids.”
Staying on track
Still, every day, children big and small find a place to go, something to do and people who miss them when they’re not there. Davis grew up in Columbia, but the Boys & Girls Club wasn’t part of his life.
“I had a lot of friends that went down the wrong path, but luckily for me I got involved in sports,” Davis said. “There were a lot of kids that didn’t have a place to go after school, which may be why they ended up where they did.”
Davis, who is in his final semester as a nutrition and fitness major at MU, said working at the Boys & Girls Club “is the best thing to ever happen to me. It gives me the opportunity to interact with kids.”
Davis is one of 13 staff members, who, in addition to looking after the children and teenagers, often act as positive role models. Delijah, a ninth-grader at Jefferson Junior High School, has been a member of the Boys & Girls Club since sixth grade, and said he looks up to Davis. “He shows me how to do stuff,” Delijah, 15, said. “If I didn’t come here, I could have been selling drugs or in a gang. I chose not to be, because the club taught me the consequences that come with that type of life.”
Wilson, who grew up without a father, knows that being the unit director puts him in a unique position to be a positive male figure for many of the children at the clubhouse. “Growing up without a father gave me the extra motivation to work with disadvantaged youth who may be growing up without a father in the home,” he said.
The Boys & Girls Club of Columbia has been around since 1997. It is one of more than 4,000 clubs in the country; the organization has its roots in boys clubs founded in 1860. Although girls were admitted earlier, it was 1990 before the official name was changed to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
Within the Boys & Girls Club of Columbia is the Teen Outreach Program, or TOP, which gathers an average of 20 sixth- and seventh-graders to meet twice a week there. Together they discuss issues they face as adolescents and participate in community service projects, such as building a nature trail in St. Louis this coming weekend.
Diamond, 14, an eighth-grader at Oakland Junior High School, has been going to the club for three years, is in the TOP program and said tutoring at the Boys & Girls Club helped her to get A’s in her classes at school.
“People will ask me if I want to do stuff that would take me down the wrong path, but I go here instead,” she said. “The club keeps you occupied. They give you time to think about what you want to do with your life here.”
Staying out of trouble is the reason Dorothy, the 12-year-old from Lange, is a member. She said that although she chooses to come to the clubhouse after school, she thinks the building needs a lot of work.
“We need more room so more kids can come,” said 12-year-old Javante, a seventh-grader at Lange. “I have friends at school that want to come but can’t because it’s too crowded already.”
Cooking for kids
On Saturday, more than 700 people gathered at the Holiday Inn Expo Center at the third annual Rootin’ Tootin’ Chili Cook-off, where 36 teams of chili cookers participated in a friendly competition to raise money for the Boys & Girls Club of Columbia. Some participants were former members themselves; others had volunteered or worked with the club before; and others had no connection with the club but were motivated to help out the community.
The Lathrop Queen Bees were at the event; all six women are staff members at the Lathrop Residence Hall on the MU campus. Barbie Banks, the residence hall coordinator for Lathrop, said she thought the activity would not only serve as a way for the staff to bond, but would also be a way for them to help keep the organization running in Columbia.
“I feel that young boys and girls have gotten the short end of the stick in our society, but the Boys & Girls Club looks out for them, keeping them safe and healthy,” Banks said.
Micah Gorman, a community advisor in Lathrop Hall, volunteered at the Boys & Girls Club last semester through the service learning program at MU. The group heard about the chili cook-off in October and decided to make a team even though the majority of them had never been to a chili cook-off before. “Most of us had no idea what we were getting ourselves in to, but it has been a good experience,” she said. The group made three gallons of chili and ran out after an hour and a half.
Bill Carner, an associate dean of graduate studies at Columbia College, was there with five others from Leadership Columbia, making seven gallons of chili for the event. Carner, who grew up in Springfield, was a member of the Boys & Girls Club in elementary school.
“When I joined, a lifetime membership fee was 25 cents,” he said, laughing. “I have known about and supported the organization for a long time. This cook-off was just one way of raising money to help them with their financial needs.” Carner used a family recipe that he got from his mother.
The event raised more than $20,000 for the Columbia clubhouse. Still, Wadley says, while it is a giant step in the right direction, there is a lot of work to be done before the Boys & Girls Club of Columbia can fully serve the needs of the community. “In the upcoming months, we will start seriously considering which is the best option for us — if we are going to look for an existing building or if we can afford to build a new place altogether.”
In the meantime, the clubhouse will keep its doors open to members. The hardest part, Wadley and Wilson agree, will be turning children away until they have a bigger and safer facility. “If we had the room for 200 kids,” Wilson said, “we would have 200 kids.”