BRATTLEBORO—Members, families, and staff of the Boys & Girls Club of Brattleboro — and members of the community — crowded into the nonprofit’s Flat Street location on May 3 to kick off its 20th anniversary.
Guests toured the building, which previously served as a parking garage and, more recently, a nightclub, as some members played board games, ping-pong, and basketball, while others skated in the town’s only indoor skatepark.
The Club will celebrate its 20th anniversary throughout the summer, and Executive Director Ricky Davidson said to expect a second party in September.
Twenty years ago, according to Davidson, an advisory committee wanted to replace what was then the Teen Center with another organization to serve local youth.
The committee decided upon the Boys & Girls Club.
“We’re really glad to be here for all these kids,” Davidson said as he reflected on the organization’s two decades.
At the Club, members receive mentoring, Davidson said. They also build connections with caring and positive adult role models for young people ages 10 to 18.
Staffers provide a safe place for members to talk about what is good in their lives, what is bad, and what mistakes they need to own up to.
“We give them the skills they can use in other parts of their lives,” he said.
Compared to its parent organization, the Brattleboro Club is relatively young, Davidson said. The organization was started in 1860 by three women in Hartford, Conn., as a way to give boys an alternative to spending time on the streets.
Similar Boys Clubs started popping up around the Northeast not long after, and in 1906, the Boys Club Federation of America was born.
The expansion continued apace, and the federation now has 4,000 clubs across the country and at U.S. military bases. The clubs serve more than 4 million.
In 1990, the national organization became the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to reflect the changing mission of the clubs to help all children.
The Boys and Girls Clubs of America has a history of operating in big cities with multiple sites, Davidson said.
By comparison, Brattleboro is a small, rural chapter, with 16 full-time staff members and a handful of per-diem staff, Davidson said. Of its 1,000 registered members, an average of 70 members walk through its doors daily.
“When there are 70 kids in the building, you know it,” he said.
Those kids participate in programs, which fall into five categories: education, character building and leadership, sports and fitness, the arts, and living a healthy lifestyle.
Some of the other programs offered in Brattleboro include leadership, music, and activities like skateboard and basketball.
This year, at members’ request, the Brattleboro Club started a program around anime, said Davidson. This program spans multiple categories because along with anime — Japanese animation — as an art form, members are also learning about anime as a cultural and social phenomenon.
Leadership and lifestyle programs like Smart Girls help members deal with issues such as peer pressure, social media, and making good choices, Davidson said.
Davidson believes that “knowledge is power” and that when members have “good information, they make informed choices” — themes that come up from other staff members when they talk about their programs and their objectives for the youth of Windham County.
From skateboarder to staff member
Nick Rancourt, 22, was a Club member for 10 years before becoming a staff member. The indoor skatepark drew him to the Club. He now runs the Club’s summer skateboard camps.
“I always loved being here, and I love Ricky and he’s a good role model,” said Rancourt, who took the job to “soak up more of [Davidson’s] wisdom,” among other reasons.
“I also love working with the kids and trying to better their positions,” said Rancourt, who has held other kid-centered jobs, including ski programs for young people at Mount Snow in the winter.
Staff receive training throughout the year on such topics as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), prolonged negative experiences that can impact and ripple through a child’s life into adulthood.
Rancourt added that he has also learned how to work with kids by watching staff at the Club when he was a member.
On a tour, Rancourt pointed out the main floor, used mostly for games and snacks, with its indoor basketball court, ping-pong tables (the Club goes through five to 10 ping-pong balls a day, he said), and pool table.
He took the tour down a slope to a bottom level, a gathering space and dance area with a climbing wall.
There, the Club — a state and federal meal site — serves approximately 250 dinners to members each week during the school year and approximately 100 lunches or dinners a day during the summer, said Davidson.
Climbing a flight of stairs, Rancourt pointed out a computer room, a lounge area, and a space to watch movies.
For Teen Night on Fridays at 7 p.m., he said, the members vote on which PG-13 movies they want to watch.
A doorway at the back of the upper floor links to a long hallway and the room for Kids Club, which provides programming and activities for those between the ages of 6 and 10 years old, Rancourt said.
In the adjacent weight room, filled with treadmills and other exercise equipment, Rancourt points out a sunflower mural in progress. He said he likes the Club’s murals.
Rancourt also said he would like to see a few new murals in the skatepark, which emerged on the other side of a door at the end of the hallway.
As a handful of members skated on the concrete slopes through the space, which takes advantage of the building’s former life as a parking garage, Rancourt said that the Club’s skatepark “gets really hot in the summer,” adding that skating the same park can get boring.
While Club members are looking forward to the new outdoor park planned for Living Memorial Park, staff offer trips to other areas in the summer, he said. Members really like a site in nearby Turners Falls, Mass., for its “bowl” structure.
“I always felt like I could come here and be free,” said Rancourt, who started as a member in seventh grade and has worked every summer at the Club since. “The staff — past and present — were always open to the kids.”
“They would talk about problems and try to open kids’ minds to other people’s problems and see their points of view,” he added. “We have a lot of kids who come in angry and need to blow off steam and we’ll try to talk to them and figure it out for them before they go and start a fight or something.”
Gaming to collaborate
Staff member Caleb Morris, 27, oversees the computer room and its many programs.
Like Rancourt, Morris started at the Club, first as a member for four years. He has worked there for two.
As a member, Morris said he liked the community. He appreciates how the Club leadership — by encouraging staff to work with members’ emotional health — has steadily reduced the number of physical outbursts by establishing a place where members can work through their physical reactions.
For his part, Morris uses many of the computer room activities such as Power Hour (homework help) and eSports (electronic games) to teach emotional intelligence.
He shows off new computers purchased through a $10,000 grant from the Red Nose Day Fund to replace the previous computers, purchased in 2010 (or approximately 80 years old in computer years, he said). It was hard for kids to do anything but get on the internet, he said.
Morris organizes an eSports group to build kids’ cooperative and collaborative skills. In Morris’s experience, these collaborative skills were one of the biggest missing pieces from formal education.
“No one really teaches you how to interact with people,” he said.
“And the way you really do that is by being saturated in it,” he continued.
Kids can practice those skills “by interacting with humans, by getting used to working with people, by learning there is always going to be a frustrating person in every group and you’re going to have to work around them to achieve your goal, and by learning you have to work with [frustrating people] and not just exclude them.”
He enjoys giving members opportunities to work on these skills by being in a game. These kids want to win, Morris explained, but the catch is this: to win the game, they need to work together.
One game he teaches is Paladins, which uses a five-person team with four types of heroes to achieve goals. Key to the game, he explained, is that each hero needs to stay in their wheelhouse to win. If players stray into another gamer’s lane, then it stifles the game.
Morris also uses the game as a way to teach members how to give feedback and criticism.
“Anytime they want to come up with a ‘you’re not doing this right,’ flip it into to ‘this is how you can do this better,’” he said.
“I’ve always found in my own failure that getting suggestions, getting new perspectives, is always really good,” he added, and that is because he really sees failure, blended with constructive criticism, as learning.
“We all need to fail. Failing is what makes us good. We fail a bunch of times to ride a bike and then one day, we can ride a bike, and then for the rest of our lives we can ride a bike,” Morris said.
The games program helps members to recognize and deal with their emotions.
In Morris’ opinion, kids generally don’t learn how to deal with their own emotions from within, let alone the emotions that get triggered by another person’s actions.
The game environment helps members ask, “What can I do to process this out instead of just getting it out physically?” Morris said.
For his homework assistance program, Power Hour, Morris set up a system where members earn points for every half hour they spend on reading or homework. Stacked in a corner of the computer room are bins filled with small, quick rewards, each with a point value, but Morris also has larger prizes worth more points ready to dole out.
Again, Morris has an underlying goal with the point system: teaching Club members the value of delayed satisfaction, a skill that he believes is core to their future success in building money-saving habits as adults.
For example, a member might want to earn enough points to receive a $10 gift card.
“We’re teaching kids that you have to wait for stuff sometimes — [that] you have to build skills to keep yourself occupied while you’re waiting, and you have to wait patiently for something to happen,” Morris said.
Morris has new programs in the works for the Club’s new 3-D printer, which can create solid objects from plastics based on computer data. He hopes to start a program where members create and play their own board games. He also wants to eventually design and build rubber-band cars.
The new computers and the 3-D printer’s capabilities offer other academic advantages for students — like being able to work, and visualize, in three dimensions when studying anatomy, he said.
Helping kids move forward from where they are
Davidson believes that one thing the Boys and Girls Club does well is to “help meet a kid where they’re at and help them see all the possibilities beyond the moment.”
Everyone finds themselves stuck from time to time, Davidson continued. During such times, it’s important to remember that there is more to life than whatever feels sticky and that the future is brighter than the now, he said.
For example, Davidson said, Club staff help members know they can go to college. Or that they can do well in the class that this week challenges them. Or that they can get through a hard patch with their parents.
Davidson said that as staff mentor and offer members skills for life, these kids learn to make successful choices on their own — choices big and small — all day.
From considering the consequences of meeting up with a group of friends who are planning to use drugs to contemplating whether to eat that third candy bar, Club members need good information. They also need to understand that failure, stumbling, and learning are all part of growing up, he said.
“And it’s okay, because you still have the Club to help you out,” Davidson added.
When he speaks with former members, he said, he’s always amazed by their stories of the Club’s positive influence and that they see the world differently because of their experience there.
“It’s cool to see how many have been touched by the Club in 20 years,” Davidson said. “Alumni talk about how it shaped their choices so as an adult they can live in the world.”
Davidson remembers one former member who was really angry at the world. Staff helped him leave his anger at the Club door and teach him anger-management skills.
That member says he still uses those skills as an adult, Davidson said.
These alumni are now raising the next generation of kids, he said.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child,” Davidson said. “Well, we’re a part of the village for a lot of them.”