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Boys & Girls Clubs of Athens Expanding Reach and Impact

Boys & Girls Clubs of Athens members meet new CEO, Robert Finch, and Vice President of Development, Sterling Gardner. Credit: Avery Brese

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Athens have been serving Athens-area youths ages 6–18 through after-school activities and summer programs for 60 years. As a means of continuing its mission and expanding community reach, this summer the organization opened a new satellite location in the Rocksprings Community Center in collaboration with the Athens Housing Authority to better serve the Rocksprings and Nellie B communities.

The Club has identified these communities as an area where the largest number of children would benefit from immediate outreach. In an interview with Flagpole, Boys & Girls Clubs of Athens President and CEO Robert Finch, Vice President of Operations Derrick Floyd and Vice President of Development Sterling Gardner elaborated on how this expansion is targeting a need in the community and how COVID has affected their curriculum.

“[Rocksprings and Nellie B] have facilities that are reasonably immediately ready. We are having to partner with the Athens Housing Authority to go in and to make some upgrades and get the buildings prepared,” said Finch. “It should not be construed that we’re not interested in going into a similar neighborhood, because we are very much interested. But these two areas do present a path of least resistance.”

The Rocksprings Community Center has been largely underutilized in recent years, explained Gardner, and many youth programs once hosted there have lost funding. The new program will support 30 children, with about 20 coming from the middle schools and 10 from the elementary schools.

Avery Brese Boys & Girls Clubs of Athens members meet new CEO, Robert Finch, and Vice President of Development, Sterling Gardner.

“We have a great large facility right here, but we’re busting at the seams,” said Gardner, referencing the Fourth Street club. “So the housing authority was really, really happy when we said that we had an interest in coming in. They said, ‘We really want these buildings to be right, because it’s not all about the summer. We are truly looking at this being a long-term partnership and providing after-school opportunities for young people in those communities.’”

After-school programs at the clubs are an extension of the summer curriculum—members receive supplemental academic instruction and the opportunity to explore skills and areas of interest, but also physical and social outlets. However, all work and no play is not the goal; the programs are centered around fun activities that keep the kids engaged and wanting to come back.

“I think that one of the things we like introducing our kids to is the ability to stand in front of your peers and do whatever you want, whatever it may be,” said Floyd. “It’s allowing them to come out of their shell.”

Under normal circumstances, Finch and Gardner explained that summer learning loss is a real issue that the children face. COVID has introduced a new challenge as many students have experienced setbacks from the instability of transitioning in and out of traditional classrooms over the last couple of years. Club curriculums are placing a greater emphasis on academic catchup to ensure students are confident in performing at a level comparable to their peers. Traditional program structures are changing to accommodate the current academic needs with metrics to guide their effectiveness.

The staff prides itself on flexibility and responsiveness, continuing to modify the curriculum to suit the needs of the members. During the school closures caused by COVID, the club created an in-person learning hub program where over 120 kids were able to spend a full day being cared for and supervised. Many of the families served by the club were in essential worker roles and did not have the family support or economic resources to care for their younger children. At the club, members received meals, online school direction, physical exercise and opportunities to socialize.

“It’s really key, I think, to a lot of their mental health, their ability to be able to socialize. Because, remember, we have some second- and third-graders in our program that really have not even seen inside of a classroom on a consistent basis until this year,” said Gardner.

Dedra Evans Joel E. Smilow club kids say goodbye to staff member, Luis, on his last day.

There are an unprecedented number of students who have returned to school without knowing or understanding classroom etiquette and how to conduct themselves in the classroom environment. Home situations varied greatly, the club staff said, and teachers often lacked an ability to hold students accountable for their attention.

“They get in a classroom for the first time, and all of a sudden they got to relearn that the teacher is responsible for me learning, whereas before I would sit at home on an iPad or some computer with messed up internet service with a picture that I probably didn’t see much of. You never saw me, because I didn’t put the screen on,” said Floyd.

Intention is the key word for Floyd, and asking staff to come together during a time when the rest of the world was shut down solidified the commitment to helping the children. The curriculum is heavily supported by volunteers, and there is an open-ended call for anyone in the community who would like to work with members based on their personal skills or interests. The 21st Century Community Learning Center also provides support for retired educators to volunteer and work with students at the clubs without affecting their retirement status.

Although the Athens club branches are supported by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, mostly in the way of curriculum and business development resources, the local clubs are responsible for securing most of their funding through grants, fundraisers and donations. As much as the nonprofit supports local children and communities, it’s equally supported by the community itself. The support of the people, local government and other nonprofits allow further expansions, like the one at the Rocksprings Community Center, to take place.