Giggles escape the lips of 12-year-old Carlos Lee as he leans across the black-and-red checkerboard.
His opponent, Thomeana Porter — or Miss Porter as the children call her — stares him down suspiciously.
“How did you get all the way back there?” Porter, 27, asks. “You were just kinged.”
Carlos responds with another fit of laughter. It’s a common sound at the Boys and Girls Club of Columbia.
For the past six years, Carlos, a Bearfield School student, has paid an annual $10 membership fee to hang out in the club’s after-school program from 3 to 8 p.m.
“I like to play with the friends that I’ve made here,” Carlos said. “It’s a fun, nice, positive place for kids.”
He’s obviously not the only child who thinks so.
In just two years, the Boys and Girls Club’s after-school program expanded from a daily average of 51 youths in January 2002 to 62 in 2003 and finally to 72 in January of this year. The average for 2001 was only 38 youths per day. The result of this growth is a waiting list for youths interested in joining the after-school club as its Fay Street building reaches maximum capacity.
The success of the club would be impossible without community and staff support, Unit Director Vera Reichlin said.
Founded in 1997, Columbia’s Boys and Girls Club was first located near the Bear Creek public housing area in partnership with the Columbia Housing Authority, Reichlin said. Under financial strain and pressure to keep its recognition by the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the Columbia club dissolved its partnership with the housing authority. The club moved to 1002 Fay St. in early 2002 after businessman Tom Atkins decided to let it use the property free.
Atkins’ donation seems to have sparked a flame of enthusiasm for the club and its purpose.
“The numbers are increasing as the youth develop relationships with the program staff,” Reichlin said. “We match university students up with the youth as mentors, which provides them with the one-on-one attention that they may not receive in homes with large families or working parents.”
This one-on-one attention includes not only the mentoring program but also individual help with homework during the club’s “power hour.” After-school activities also focus on five core areas: sports and fitness, character and leadership, art and technology, education and career development, and heath and life skills.
Reichlin said a Youth of the Week program recognizes youths for their “leadership, service to the club and community, and homework completion.” Winners from this program go on to the Youth of the Month writing competition.
Youth of the Month winners are eligible for a Youth of the Year contest. Local teens who win Youth of the Year can then compete in state, regional and national contests.
The 2004 Columbia Boys and Girls Club Teen Youth of the Year is 18-year-old Anthony Johnson, who graduated from Douglass High School last week. Johnson is thankful for the club and its staff.
“Staff members have guided me to excel in life by believing in me and by pushing me to do my best,” Johnson told judges in the local Teen Youth of the Year competition. “In return, I want to do the same for others by helping the younger kids and hopefully getting them on a successful career and life path.”
In addition to increasing youth and student interest, local support and donations are playing a role in the club’s recent success.
While local program funding regularly relies on grants from the city and the state and from Boys and Girls Clubs of America, as well as donations from the United Way, it was local charitable efforts that were responsible for the recent renovation of the Fay Street location.
The improvement represented a collaboration of efforts. Student volunteers from MU’s Caring for Columbia program provided the manpower, Sherwin Williams donated the paint, and S/B Painting Co. provided brushes and rollers to paint the building’s Teen Center and Reichlin’s office.
Gifts from the community and local businesses include a pool table, six computers from Mediacom and a pingpong table from a recent college graduate.