It’s no secret.

When kids are left to their own devices after school, they can get exposed to a lot of bad influences that lead to trouble.

Kids go unsupervised after school for many reasons. Some have a single parent working multiple jobs to make ends meet. Others have two parents who work until 5 p.m. Still others are from low-income homes, where parents simply can’t afford to pay for a child’s enrollment in an after-school program.

“Kids who don’t have a place to go after school have a lot of things pulling at them that are not good, and we want to provide that safe place with caring adults and fun activities,” said Nick Dean, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Lincoln/Lancaster County.

“All of our programs are proactive instead of reactive,” Dean added. “We try to give kids alternatives and build their confidence. We try to accentuate the positives in their lives and build on those.”

For five years, the local Boys and Girls Club has been taking that proactive approach to helping at-risk youth realize their full potential by offering a range of after-school activities.

With a low $10 annual membership fee and scholarships available, the club has grown to nearly 1,000 members and primarily serves middle school students who reside in Lincoln’s Near South area. But it’s open to kids ages 6-18 from throughout Lincoln and Lancaster County.

Most club members attend Park Middle School, at Eighth and F streets, where after-school activities take place in the Teen Center from 3-7 p.m. Some younger students from Elliott and McPhee elementary schools also participate in the after-school program at Park. Several Everett Elementary School students participate in the summer program.

“Our goals are to serve the kids who need us most, and right now that’s here at Park Middle School,” Dean said.

Approximately 73 percent of club members are from low-income families and qualify for free or reduced-price lunches at Lincoln Public Schools. Many of the students eat breakfast and lunch at the school, and then as club members they are served a free hot dinner as part of the club schedule.

Help with homework

Club activities begin after school at 3 p.m. with “Power Hour” – a time designated for completing homework with tutoring from Park teachers in classrooms designated by grade levels.

“The teachers supervise and organize those after-school classes, and the kids get their homework done,” said Ryan Zabawa, principal of Park School and a member of the Boys and Girls Club’s board of directors for the past three years.

“It’s working,” Zabawa continued. “Kids who attend after-school programs are outscoring those who don’t attend on the NeSA (Nebraska State Accountability) standardized testing in reading, writing and science – not only at Park, but at other schools throughout Lincoln.”

Statistics prepared by Educational Service Unit 18 indicate this was true for both the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years.

“I like the Boys and Girls Club because it has programs like Cooking Club, and it’s a place where I can hang out with my friends,” said Tariq Richter, a seventh grader. “I also like the help that I get every day with my homework.”

After homework hour, Boys and Girls Club members eat dinner in the school’s cafeteria and participate in a club activity of their choice.

One of the largest programs is the Cooking Club, led by culinary specialist Suzi Stout in Park School’s consumer science classrooms. Stout also reaches out to parents and teaches them how to prepare healthy holiday meals.

Another option is the Torch Club, which is similar to a student council, said Andy Larson, director of operations for the Boys and Girls Club.

“The kids have a voice in drawing up club recommendations, and the staff listens and considers them,” Larson said. Torch Club members also take part in educational activities that develop socialization, problem-solving, communications, goal-setting and decision-making skills.

The Sports and Fitness Club provides a variety of daily physical activities and games in the school gym and outdoors at adjacent Cooper Park.

Many other clubs are offered. All fit into the Boys and Girls Club’s core focus programs: character/leadership development, education/career development, health/life skills, the arts, and sports/fitness and recreation.

“The kids go home with their homework done, they’ve been fed a healthy meal, and they’ve had fun with friends in a safe environment. What more could a parent want?” said Connie Duncan, a co-founder who has served as the Lincoln club’s board president since 2009.

Duncan added that the club is helping to decrease the student dropout rate in Lincoln Public Schools – a major goal being emphasized by Superintendent Steve Joel.

“If we can help these kids be engaged and successful in middle school and stay out of trouble, when they reach high school they’ll be less likely to drop out,” Duncan said.

The club’s beginnings

Connie and her husband, Todd Duncan, chairman of Duncan Aviation, co-chaired a capital campaign that raised $100,000 to start the Boys and Girls Club in Lincoln in 2007. At the time, Lincoln was the largest city in the nation without a Boys and Girls Club, and one of only two state capitals without one, she said.

Club meetings began in 2007 in space rented at First Presbyterian Church. In 2008, the City of Lincoln asked if the Boys and Girls Club would like to take over its after-school teen center and move into Park School.

“It was expensive for the city to run the teen center,” Dean said. “For us to do it, we needed all kinds of community partners. A lot of great groups in Lincoln have stepped forward, and those partnerships have put us over the top financially. Because of the generosity of a lot of individuals, companies, board members and partners, today we can make this club work.”

According to Duncan, when Dean took over as executive director in 2009, the club was not financially stable. So he contacted philanthropic foundations throughout Lincoln to increase awareness of the Boys and Girls Club and solicit grants.

“Nick continues to do that,” Duncan said. “He doesn’t turn down any opportunity to get more support for the club.”

Eventually, the club became a United Way agency.

“That gave us a lot more visibility,” Dean said. “We go out and speak at United Way meetings at area businesses, and we get funding through the general fund.”

Another funding source is the annual fall fundraiser, Movie Trivia Night, which raised $77,000 for the club Nov. 9 at Duncan Aviation (highlighted in the January L Magazine). A new spring fundraiser called “It Takes One” is being planned. Watch for details as they are finalized.

The partnerships and fundraising keep club membership affordable for all youth, Dean said. In addition to the after-school program’s annual fee of only $10 per child, the summer program is offered for $40 per youth. Scholarships are also available.

“It costs us $400 per kid per year to provide four hours of club activities per day after school and eight hours per day Monday through Friday for two months in the summer,” Dean said. “It’s very cost-effective. That’s why we get a lot of the community partners we have.”

The club started with three kids on its first day in 2007 and has continued to grow every year since.

“We now have over 950 members,” Dean said. “We see 250 to 300 kids a day in our after-school programs, and over 440 in our summer program.”

The local club is affiliated with Boys and Girls Clubs of America, founded in 1906.

How to help

If you would like to volunteer to help lead the Boys and Girls club, contact Brent Docter, program director, at bdocter@lincolnbgc.org or 402-477-4133. Monetary donations can be sent to Boys and Girls Club of Lincoln/Lancaster County, P.O. Box 22344, Lincoln, NE 68542.

For more club details, visit www.lincolnbgc.org or contact Dean at ndean@lincolnbgc.org.

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