Youth nonprofit finds opportunity for creative program changes
Executive Director Michelle Simpson points to a mural painted on one of the walls of the Boys & Girls Club of Brattleboro.

Youth nonprofit finds opportunity for creative program changes

At a time of uncertainty and with a new executive director, the Boys & Girls Club of Brattleboro takes a fresh look at its offerings and makes a clean start — literally

BRATTLEBORO — This spring, with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Boys & Girls Club of Brattleboro shut the doors to its Flat Street clubhouse.

The club itself, however, stayed busy.

While still operating under the state's emergency pandemic response orders, the club's staff and volunteers gave the clubhouse a spring cleaning.

Over the summer, the club held three camps and partnered with the Retreat Farm to host the club's After Care program for children in kindergarten through grade 5.

The club's new executive director, Michelle Simpson, described the summer programing as “successful” and said that it provided the organization with useful “action research” - in other words, opportunities for the club to craft its processes for an uncertain and changing environment.

“As an educator, I feel it's time to flip the model for teaching,” said Simpson, who for many years served as the executive director of Oak Meadow, which offers homeschool curriculum and distance learning. “It's really time for adults to listen to youth.”

The nonprofit's board of directors hired Simpson in May as a consultant to create an appropriate reopening plan for the club and to design summer programing. The board then hired her as the club's executive director in August.

Simpson explained that the summer programs - or camps - helped her understand how kids used the space and how the organization can best match safety protocols to the different situations.

“We felt very committed to [providing] in-person engagement,” she said of creating programs at the club rather than remote ones.

Each summer camp lasted for one week and focused on a different topic: skateboarding, band camp, and games such as ping-pong, Magic card games, and air hockey. Campers were divided into small groups, or pods.

Simpson said the skateboard camps, specifically, showed her how much the club's indoor skatepark is underutilized. Consequently, she said, the club is seeking grants to revamp the activity, and over the long-term, she plans to connect the club members to the town's wider skate community.

In her opinion, the skate culture is intergenerational and an important part of the community.

“Skate culture amplified the youth voice” and broke down age barriers, she said, noting that a 10-year-old can teach a 40-year-old a new trick and vice-versa.

Meeting the needs

Now that the school year has begun, the club is offering more structured programs for club members as well as continuing its After Care program.

The club's current space lost its only window when the Snow Block was built next door. Feeling the space was no longer conducive to serving little children, Simpson reached out to partner with the farm.

The outdoor program has proved a success, with enrollment increasing, she said.

“It's magical and a nice offset to remote learning,” Simpson said.

With winter coming, the After Care program will need to move indoors in November, and the club is looking for an indoor space for the cold months. Simpson said she hopes the program will return to Retreat Farm in the spring.

Simpson said that moving the little children's programing out of Flat Street in the long term will also help staff better focus on the needs of teen members.

Over the three years that the After Care program has operated at Flat Street, the teen membership has declined, Simpson said. This correlation signaled to her that teens need more of the staff's energy and time.

In acknowledgement of focusing more on teens at the Flat Street location, the Club has increased its autumn hours of operations from 1 to 6 p.m. The afternoons include a mixture of structured events and free-time, Simpson said.

Club members can attend study hall, use the skatepark, and participate in activities hosted by community partners such as the River Gallery School of Art. These activities include current events, drawing and cartooning, and open mic night.

“There's always something to plug into,” she said.

COVID-19 demands

Due to public health measures taken in response to COVID-19, the club needs to maintain a cap on the number of people that can be in the space.

The club's website offers schedules, more details on activities, and the Club's COVID-19 protocols.

The Club's new membership dues are also listed on the website. Club members can purchase a membership for a season or for a year, or they can choose a BOGO (buy one, give one) membership.

Simpson said that while the membership dues have increased, “No one will be turned away for lack of money.”

“Kids are still allowed to come and go - it's still their place,” Simpson said. “But with COVID we need to shepherd [people] a little more.”

But the pandemic has also come with benefits, Simpson was quick to add. (“Never waste a good crisis,” she said sardonically.)

In the spring, staff took advantage of the club being closed to conduct a deep clean of the space and to redecorate some areas. According to Simpson, staff disposed of enough clutter to fill 10 dumpsters. New carpet was installed upstairs, where community members also refreshed the mural.

Looking to the future

Simpson admits that the pandemic has cost the club, although she did not provide a dollar figure.

In addition to program revenues lost during the shutdown, the budget has been hit by the unanticipated purchases of items like wipeable furniture and more cleaning products. Also hitting the bottom line is extra staff time to clean areas of the club between activities.

The state provided a small reopening grant, and the club is also waiting to find out if it will receive a second state COVID-19 relief funding, she said.

Simpson said the state has been supportive, but community support has also buoyed the club through the COVID financial crunch. A seasonal appeal helped boost the club's budget. The annual Going the Distance bike ride and fundraiser raised nearly $40,000 as well, she said.

“Community support for the club is unbelievably heartwarming,” she said.

Gazing out at the rest of 2020, Simpson said the club is taking things month by month because so much is still unknown. She expects that as the weather cools, more kids will find their way back to Flat Street.

As part of her plans for staff, programing, and safety protocols to adopt, she hopes to add more use of the skatepark and performing arts to the programming. Simpson wants to increase the club's partnerships with local schools. With so many families using remote learning, their kids may need a new place to go.

Increasing opportunities for youth leadership is also high on Simpson's list.

She said club staff will always be there to mentor young members. Yet Simpson would like to create more youth-led leadership teams.

In her opinion, members of the current Generation Z - defined by the Pew Research Center as those born after 1996 - are the most “savvy, kind, and inclusive” generation.

“The idea that adults know better - that belief needs to go away,” she said. “Teens are an underutilized resource in our country.”

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