For seven years, I was the director of a Boys & Girls Club in Philadelphia. This was 1980 and the Club served as a full-service community center – we served newborns to seniors. This Boys & Girls Club was a community hub in one of the worst parts of Philadelphia; a part of town so bad, so down-trodden that it was referred to as "the bottom." The people who lived in this part of town even referred to it as the bottom – this is how bleak things were for this community.
In the center of all of this was our Boys & Girls Club. It consisted of three incredibly old buildings, one dating back to 1876. You can imagine how dilapidated the buildings were. But, this Boys & Girls Club had been an institution in the community since 1932. It served children and their parents and their grandparents. Despite everything else in the bottom, our Boys & Girls Club was immaculate. There was not a trace of graffiti on any of the buildings. No trash on the floors. It was held in the highest esteem of everyone in the community because it made such a daily impact in everyone's lives. Every generation had been affected by this place.
As the director of the Club, I knew the importance of this beacon in the community. I think the impact of the Boys & Girls Club had a lot to do with what I call our "secret ingredients" – the five key program elements that we still use today. I saw these secret ingredients come to life every single day in that Club in Philadelphia. They were:
1. The Club was a safe haven; a positive place for our kids. Everyone in this community knew that at the Boys & Girls Club, there were no gangs. No colors. No drugs or bullying. This was a safe place where youth could escape the realities of the streets.
2. We had fun. Kids were allowed to be kids at the Club.
3. We offered supportive relationships. Our staff operated as family members to the youth, some of whom had otherwise never been able to develop this kind of relationship with an adult.
4. We gave them opportunities and expectations. We held them in the highest regard and expected – not hoped – that they would achieve. Outside of the Club, no one had ever done this for them before. No one had ever told these youth they would succeed. No one had ever said to them, "It is NOT ok for you to fail."
5. The youth received recognition. Sometimes it was just a pat on the back, or a "good job." It doesn't take much to make someone feel good about themselves. We understood just how important it was to help these kids see how great they really are.
I reflect on those seven years in Philadelphia and it reminds me every day why I do this. The community center in Philadelphia is just one example, but it is proof of what Boys & Girls Clubs do every day, in the worst of circumstances, in the worst places in the United States. Clubs operate as a beacon despite a prevailing sense of community hopelessness. We offer more than just programs and training and fundraising. We change lives.