“We did many things you don't typically see Boys & Girls Clubs do. But that's the point. When kids' futures and your community's well-being are at stake, doing whatever it takes is exactly what we must do.”
It would be an understatement to say that we've all learned a lot during the past year — a lot about ourselves, each other, our capacity to endure adversity and our ability to help others. The word that keeps coming back to me as I reflect on our post-pandemic world is community. I've seen our community lift up young people in a time of great uncertainty and need; it's the same thing I experienced myself as a Boys & Girls Club kid nearly three decades ago.
Growing up in the projects of Chicago, my neighborhood wasn't safe. Many of the kids I grew up with are no longer alive; we've even buried children. When I wasn't at school or working at the grocery store, I spent all my time at the local Boys & Girls Club to escape the world around me. When my mother died when I was 23, Club staff collected personal donations to help my family afford a proper funeral for her. The Boys & Girls Club is one of the main reasons I'm alive today.
I always told myself if I ever received the opportunity to lead, I would use my influence and resources to help as many people as possible. As the president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County, the past year put that commitment to the ultimate test.
From Uncertainty to Stability
One month after opening a new 20,000 square-foot Boys & Girls Club — the largest investment we've ever made to serve significantly more youth in our community — COVID-19 shut our doors. We found ourselves feeling like everyone else in our community: uncertain.
Uncertain like Club member Sharon who didn't know where her next meal would come from once school closed.
Uncertain like Jackie, one of our 61 Club kids who was away at college when her campus closed and couldn't afford to get home.
Uncertain like Club parent Debra who lost her job and could no longer pay the monthly electric bill or apartment rent.
How do you combat uncertainty to support your community? By doing whatever it takes.
We launched a countywide food program that provided 125,000 meals to kids in need while supporting local restaurant owners. We also fed senior citizens, police officers, nurses and front-line medical staff.
When college campuses closed, we made sure our Club kids who didn’t have transportation or couldn't afford to get home returned safely.
We helped nearly 8,000 low-income families pay electricity, gas and rent bills to ensure kids could continue to have safe, stable environments. We worked with generous donors to give away four cars, including one to a single mom who just lost her job.
We drove from state to state to obtain and bring masks back for kids and families, distributing 1.3 million face masks and providing medical supplies to families who contracted the virus. Our Club is currently beginning COVID-19 vaccine distribution, focusing on underserved areas of the community because it’s essential that communities of color and those who are the most disenfranchised have access to this vaccine.
We bought headphones for hundreds of kids who live in the same apartments I did growing up so they could be successful in virtual school. When you have six or seven people living in a two-bedroom apartment, the noise makes it impossible to focus on schoolwork.
To respond to systemic racism and civil unrest, we hosted a youth town hall meeting after George Floyd's death and led the effort to get the first statue of an African American woman erected outside the Wisconsin state capitol.
We did many things you don't typically see Boys & Girls Clubs do. But that's the point. When kids' futures and your community's well-being are at stake, doing whatever it takes is exactly what we must do.
What Comes Next? Choosing the Uncomfortable Chair
We've come a long way from scouring the country for masks a year ago to being back with our Club kids where wearing masks is as commonplace as brushing our teeth. Although you can't always see the emotions behind a person’s mask, uncertainty is still what's hiding behind the face coverings of so many Club kids we serve. It’s often what’s behind mine, too.
I worry about our kids' mental health and emotional well-being. I worry about the long-term academic impact of the virus, especially on our kids of color. I worry about the growing opportunity gap. I worry about the health of our community. I worry about our staff and continuing to care for and invest in them. But despite this uncertainty, there is great hope behind my mask if we are willing to get uncomfortable.
Uncertainty is uncomfortable. Systemic change happens when we're willing to sit in uncomfortable chairs. We've tried to find and sit in every uncomfortable chair during the past year we possibly can to move the needle for our children. It's going to take all of us working together to reduce the deep inequities our children face across individual counties and the country. I hope you'll join me in being all in for that challenge. Our kids' futures count on it.
Help More Kids & Families Through This Challenging Time
While 2020 was a year full of challenges and uncertainty, Boys & Girls Clubs continued to be the place kids, families and communities could count on. In addition to the services and support Clubs always provide, they quickly adapted to help families reeling from job losses, school and childcare closures, and overwhelming food insecurity.
Help Clubs keep doing whatever it takes to support communities in need and ensure great futures are still possible for every child.