BRATTLEBORO—Although Ricky Davidson officially took over as executive director of The Boys & Girls Club of Brattleboro in October, he said, “not a whole lot has changed other than my title.”
Davidson became the interim executive director in April, but will also serve as unit director — his former role — until he hires someone new.
As an employee of a nonprofit social-service organization, Davidson got used to wearing many hats and switching them at a moment’s notice as he took on more responsibilities at the club.
When Davidson joined the organization 12 years ago, he was a part-time career coordinator, helping youth with skills related to finding work. Then, Davidson became “the college and career guy” when he created a program to help teens prepare for an undergraduate education.
From there, Davidson kept advancing: teen services director, program director, and then, eight years ago, unit director.
Davidson said he is happy he got the job, but he was nervous about the process.
“I hadn’t applied to a job in many years, and they did a national search. I wondered how I would stand up nationally,” Davidson said. “But, I told the Board I would go back to being unit director if they chose someone else. I wasn’t going anywhere. I still want to work with area youth,” he said, and he wanted to stay.
“A positive thing about the B & GC is, you’re never out there alone,” Davidson said, noting the organization’s support nationally, and from local branches: “They are unmatched when it comes to youth development. They have the pre-eminent experts, and they are just a phone call away.”
Davidson reflected on the changes he’s noticed in the last 12 years, and how the club’s creative, nimble response can make a difference.
Until a few years ago, the club had no kitchen and offered only snacks.
“We noticed kids were loading up on snacks before leaving,” Davidson said.
In asking them why, staff learned, “many kids were going home to no dinner, and no food for the whole weekend,” he said. “So, we started making meals just with a microwave and a Crock-Pot,” he said.
Then they added a full kitchen.
“Now we make 250 meals per week, six days a week, and these meals are free for youth and their families,” Davidson said. “We don’t want to send anyone away hungry."
Davidson stressed that many of these kids’ families are the working poor. “And knowing their kids can come in for a meal helps with their budget,” he said.
“We’re glad we can take care of this need, but we’re sorry there is this need. Serving a few hundred meals each week is pretty intense,” Davidson said.
“When I talk to other people at other Boys & Girls Clubs, they’re surprised. They think Vermont is idyllic, like a Norman Rockwell postcard. They think we don’t have poverty here,” Davidson said.
Another major change Davidson has noticed — and one “people don’t think is ‘Vermont,’ but it is” — is substance abuse.
“When I was growing up, keeping kids off drugs was the main focus,” he said. “We still need to do that.”
“But now, it’s someone in their family they live with who is using,” Davidson said. “They’re going home and taking care of their parents.”
“How do you navigate that as a kid? What are your resources?” he said.
The Boys & Girls Club is one of them.
“We’re a safe haven. They walk through the door and they get to be a 12-year-old kid again. They have positive adults in their lives here, which is crucial,” Davidson said.
“This place is not therapy, so they can hang out with friends, do art, learn skills, play basketball. They can deal with it here if they want to, but they don’t have to,” Davidson said.
That choice gives the youth “a sense of power in an otherwise powerless situation,” he said.
Not just a skate park
“We have a pretty successful track record helping kids navigate their childhoods and adolescence and go out as successful adults,” Davidson said, noting that a high percentage of regular attendees “graduate high school on time and with a plan, whether it’s college, an apprenticeship, the military, or a job.”
“But we need to do better at getting the word out. We’re not just a skate park. We’re many different things,” Davidson said.
The Boys & Girls Club became a licensed after-school facility this September, Davidson said, noting that the after-school program is for elementary-school-age children — a younger population than the club usually serves.
Staff provides transportation between school and the club, and the kids can attend on half- and no-school days, too. “This is helpful for working parents,” Davidson said.
In conjunction with Brattleboro Union High School, the club offers a community-based learning program where students come to the club during the school day and develop skills in food preparation, computers, and office tasks. “It’s kind of like an internship, and it’s for kids who don’t thrive in a traditional classroom setting all day,” Davidson said.
With Youth Services, the Boys & Girls Club offers a Tuesday night drop-in program for adolescents age 15-22. It includes a free meal and skill building, such as creative writing, how to open a bank account, and how to rent an apartment.
“These are life skills,” said Davidson, adding, “we cover that basic stuff here so they don’t get out on their own and flounder.”
Davidson wants to increase the club’s capacity. “It’s a big building, it can fit more kids,” he said, noting the club’s West Brattleboro site, at the Westgate apartment complex, also has the ability to serve more youth.
He also wants to raise more money.
“A huge piece of my new job is fundraising and development,” Davidson said, explaining he is “always trying to find one more dollar.”
“Since I took this job, almost every social service organization has reached out to congratulate me and ask, ‘How can we partner with you?’” he noted.
“The community as a whole is very supportive of us and we can’t thank them enough for that,” Davidson said.