The Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa County has been serving the area for almost a quarter of a century, helping to fill in the gaps for area youth and pave the way to opportunity for all.
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MIAMI - On the first day of Adventure Camp, the summer program at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Ottawa County, one veteran Club kid assured a newcomer, "Don't worry, it doesn't suck."
Among kids, that's a pretty stellar endorsement and it's an impression that's apparently lasting.
"We do have a handful of employees who were raised in the Club and now work for us," said Boys and Girls Clubs of Ottawa County Executive Director Mackenzie Garst. "I think that is the highest form of flattery that they have such great memories of our Club that they want to work here and make their career here."
While certainly high praise, it barely scratches the surface when it comes to the impact of local Clubs.
From humble beginnings in 1806 to nearly 4,300 Clubs serving nearly four million young people today, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) has been making a significant difference by providing a safe place for kids and teens to have fun, stay active, academically supported, mentored and make life-long friends and memories.
There is also a healthy list of wildly successful BGCA alumni who proudly attest to the positive influence of the organization in their lives, such as Martin Sheen, Vince McMahon, Jennifer Lopez, Micheal Jordan, and Denzel Washington just to name a few.
Locally, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Ottawa County has been serving the area for nearly a quarter of a century and today provides after-school care at two satellite locations in Commerce and Fairland and year-round at its primary location in Miami with services after-school and during breaks and summer.
"Boys and Girls Clubs of Ottawa County is now 24-years-old this year. We have been here in Ottawa County since the 90s serving kids 6 to 18," explained Garst.
BGCA holds as its mission, "To enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens."
"In a nutshell, that means we want to be able to serve the kids of our community that need us most – who need mentors, who need positive adult figures in their lives, or just want a place to come and just feel like they belong," said Garst. "We want the Club to be that."
Garst said the local Club follows a youth development model which sets its focus on providing caring and responsible mentors, but equally important is serving to fill existing opportunity gaps.
"We have to be willing to set the standard of expectation for our kids. We believe that all of our kids have the opportunity to be successful," said Garst. "The opportunity gaps in our community and in our country are very prevalent and we believe Boys and Girls Clubs kind of stand in that gap and allow everyone the same opportunity."
To that end, the local Club has programs ranging from homework help, special interest clubs such as art and STEM, sports, cultural education, community service projects, skill building and kids helping kids with older members able to apply to assist with activities for younger members.
Affordability is another area where Boys and Girls Clubs helps to fill in the gaps for families with the organization working on a sliding scale membership fee schedule. Costs average under $10 per week and the Club does not turn away any child for their inability to pay.
That is of particular significance when considering the national average cost of child care for school-age children in Oklahoma is $77.83 weekly at child care centers, according to the Oklahoma Child Care Resource & Referral Association.
The local Club also helps in meeting the critical nutritional needs of area youth through community partnerships, such as its relationship with Sodexo at NEO A&M College which provides snacks during the school year and breakfast and lunch during school breaks and summer.
A considerable impact as Ottawa County has an overall 17.9 percent food insecurity rate, and 29.6 percent child food insecurity rate, according to the most recent statistics compiled by Feeding America.
Club kids also seem to benefit across a broad spectrum from drug avoidance, improved academic outlooks, and giving back to their communities, according to the latest data compiled by BGCA. Among Club members reporting a positive experience:68% of Club 12th graders volunteer at least once per month, while 39% of 12th graders nationally do so. 91% of Club ninth graders report abstaining from alcohol, compared to 77% of ninth graders nationally. 27% of Club girls in middle school are physically active each day, compared with 23% of middle-school girls nationally. 42% of Club boys in middle school exercise daily, while 37% of middle-school boys nationally do so. 73% of low-income Club members ages 12 to 17 who attend the Club regularly report receiving mostly As and Bs, compared to 69% of their peers nationally. 12th-grade Club members are more than twice as likely to express an interest in a STEM career as 12th graders nationally (56% of 12th-grade Club members vs. 25% of 12th graders nationally).
"I think demand has always been high and will continue. As more and more parents are having to work longer hours to meet the needs of their family, so is the demand for extended care programs for our youth," said Garst. "That's where I think Boys and Girls Clubs are uniquely positioned because we are open for those working parents during extended hours."
During the academic year, the local Club offers after-school care until 7 p.m. at all of its sites and is open for full day care during school breaks at the Miami location.
For the after-school program in Miami, Garst also helped to coordinate transportation to the Club, with students needing a ride getting picked up at the MPS bus hub where all district bus routes have a stop-over.
Last year Garst also began a flat fee $5 'Friday Fun Night' at the main Miami location open from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. offering fun in a safe supervised environment along with a pizza dinner.
The summer program at the Club runs eight weeks, provides two meals and a snack, and a schedule of activities and field trips that integrate learning, skill building, and character development along with traditional camp activities such as swimming, crafts, and athletics.
The Club was also there during the teacher walkout, opening its doors to kids across the county for the two weeks most area schools were closed and again providing meals.
The local Club has positioned itself as an invaluable resource for area youth and demand is high. The Ottawa County Club registered 350 members in its after-school program and 180 for its summer program last year, while this year the summer program hit capacity with 258 registered.
Meeting that demand is one of the the greatest challenges, even after moving to its new significantly larger facility at the former Armory Building in Riverview Park which boasts an impressive 10,000 square feet of space featuring an art room, game room, power hour room, library, teen room, commercial kitchen, gymnasium and snack bar.
Members are registered on a first-come-first-served basis and spots fill up quickly with Garst limited in all Club programs by the staff she an ensure is available.
"It really is a matter of staffing and being able to fill those positions," said Garst. "We run a 1 to 15 kid to staff ratio, so for every additional 15 we take into the Club as registered members, I have to hire another part-time employee."
While grants have assisted in helping to meet local need, like the temporary summer aid of an AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) team, Garst emphasized that community support is still very much needed.
"We are heavily grant funded, and those grants are extended as far as they can at this point, so for me to be able to serve more kids in our programs that funding has to come right now from the local level. It has to come from our community," said Garst.
Garst said along with monetary support, volunteers are always welcomed and she hopes more local businesses will also choose to get involved.
"The Club is the community's. I firmly believe that this is a community building, that our town is in charge of making sure it succeeds and making sure it continues to provide a safe place for our kids," said Garst. "The structured activities, the life skills, the healthy lifestyles, and the academic success our kids are getting inside these walls are so important to everything else that happens within our community. Also, every dollar that comes here stays here and serves local kids."
To learn more about the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa County, to volunteer, or to donate, visit the local club at 830 D Street SE in Miami, visit the ‘Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa County' Facebook page or call 918-542-6325.
This is the first feature in an ongoing series from the Miami News-Record highlighting community non-profits and resources. Each community spotlight article will focus on specific regional needs such as childcare, food insecurity, addiction, education and more. Each feature will also be accompanied by a video that will incorporate reader questions.
Feedback or suggestions for new topics may be submitted to email@example.com with the subject line "Community Spotlight" for consideration. Look for announcements about our next featured organization on the MNR Facebook page or our Facebook community group "Ottawa County Seen on Scene."
Dorothy Ballard is the managing news editor of the Miami News-Record. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @ dm_ballard.