Nonprofits – A fun place to grow; Boys & Girls Clubs of Schenectady still working ‘with the kids who need us most’

Unit Director Edward Sichilongo works with Ariadna Sanchez, left, and Alayah Tormoet, both 8, on word puzzles after school at the Boys & Girls Club in Schenectady
Unit Director Edward Sichilongo works with Ariadna Sanchez, left, and Alayah Tormoet, both 8, on word puzzles after school at the Boys & Girls Club in Schenectady

At the Boys & Girls Clubs of Schenectady, personal growth and fun are often one and the same.

The 85-year-old nonprofit’s mission is to enable and inspire children, and the path is often through recreation. A bumper pool tournament, for example, is both: an excuse for some fun and a lesson in self-control.

Each year, the organization’s dozen-plus sites serve more than 11,000 children ages 6 to 18, about 3,000 of them members. For members, the result of attendance is designed to be the same even if the path varies.

“Our mission is to enable and inspire all young people,” Executive Director Shane Bargy said. “Especially those who need us most.”

There are four clubs in Schenectady and one in Rotterdam. They vary in size and amenities, but can be placed in two groups: the flagship on Education Drive and all the others.

“This is like the Taj Mahal of Boys & Girls Clubs,” Bargy said proudly of the main club, which opened in January 2020 after five years of planning, one year of construction and $13 million in expenditures.

But the other sites accomplish the same thing just as well, he added: Character development, academic assistance and physical health.

There’s also a significant employment and training component, and the organization is stepping up its efforts in the arts as well.

The Schenectady organization was founded in 1936 on Green Street in the Stockade neighborhood and later moved to Union Street.

Its five current club facilities date as far back as 1950.

The organization runs programs in five schools in partnership with the Schenectady City School District; operates all four public pools for the city of Schenectady; runs programs in three to five city parks each year; and buses 200 children a day to its day camp on the Helderberg Escarpment in Knox for seven weeks each summer.

The fixed sites become neighborhood institutions, Bargy said, but not necessarily forever. That’s why the clubs on Green Street and Union Street were closed.

“Our mantra is, where the kids are is where we set up shop,” he said.

And that’s not just where the kids are, but where the kids have the greatest need.

“It says right in our mission: We work with the kids who need us most. That could be kids in Niskayuna who need us. However, primarily the kids who need us most come from the most distressed communities, which is where we typically set up shop,” Bargy said.

“You’ll notice our facilities are in parts of the city where poverty is the highest, where you might see more crime.”

He’s a product of the environment himself: He grew up on Crane Street, four blocks away from where his office is now located, and often went to the club on Webster Street.

The neighborhoods’ problems can become the children’s problems as they grow older, he said.

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“It does not matter what is going on in the community that is running counter to what we want to accomplish, we put our heads down and we keep moving forward to do our best,” Bargy said.

“There are a lot of barriers that our families face every day, and it is our job as youth development workers, teachers, community members to take down as many of those barriers as possible.

“I’ve seen miracles happen where you pull kids out of gangs, you take them out of the streets and they turn it around.”

It’s critical, he added, for at-risk children to know there are people in the community who care about them.

The Boys & Girls Clubs utilize programming split into two groups: younger than 12 and older than 11. Ideally, if they’ve benefited from their time at the club, by the time members are 16 or 17 they’re spending enough time on school sports or working that they no longer visit the club often.

Typically, only about 100 of the 3,000 members are 18 years old. But those who start young and stay through their senior year in high school have a 90% to 95% graduation rate, Bargy said.

Personal growth at the clubs is achieved in many ways, including academic help, recreational events, vocational preparation and substance abuse prevention training.

One of the most productive settings is the one most people would never suspect: the game rooms.

“They’re often overlooked,” Bargy said. “But I consider the game rooms probably the most important places in our facilities because the majority of the social skills are learned in that setting. Remember, they’re learning how to win in there, they’re learning how to lose in there.”

Children aren’t just given a pool cue and a rack of balls and told to have some fun — staff is there to supervise and guide, and to calm if necessary.

“Losing a game that you care deeply about like bumper pool, when you’re 9 you can lose your temper real quickly,” Bargy said.

“That’s a skill, to learn how to regulate yourself,” he said.

“The game rooms are breeding grounds for competitive emotions and angst and anger, which is why they’re the best spot for learning how to control that stuff.

“Those social skills that they learn in the game room they can take out into the community and with them the rest of their lives.”

The area reserved for teens in the new club had a different set of considerations that took precedence over the rest of the facility because teens are the ones at greatest risk.

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“I can’t tell you how many strategy sessions it took to put together,” Bargy said. A survey of teenage members showed their priorities were entertainment and performance opportunities, food, a cool place to hang out without adults hovering over them and a place to be safe.

“That was a very interesting answer, because a lot of the teens we surveyed were not behaving safely in the community — but they wanted to be safe here,” Bargy said.

The flagship club was designed to be great: Proctors helped design a scale model of its lighting system in the club’s Neil and Jane Golub Theater; every fixture is mall-grade to resist the wear and tear of 300 kids a day; the kitchen is built to high-volume commercial standards; and the gymnasium is ringed with high windows.

“This is usually the ‘wow’ moment for people who’ve never been here,” Bargy said of the bright gym.

The gym and much of the rest of the club were designed to double as a community resource. The building is reserved for member children and staff from 2 to 8 p.m., but it’s available for other uses earlier in the day. Seniors play pickleball in the gym and use the computer labs, for example.

“When we put this facility together we were thinking holistically, everybody,” Bargy said. “We pride ourselves on being nimble and being able to meet needs as they pop up.”

And just two months after the club opened its doors, it got its trial by fire as a community resource: The COVID pandemic hit.

Very quickly, the flagship location pivoted to command center.

Schenectady County and more than a dozen nonprofit community organizations formed the Schenectady County COVID-19 Emergency Coalition, with the club as its headquarters.

Pallets loaded with food, baby supplies, face masks and pet food soon crowded the big, open gym.

A communications center took requests and 16,500 care packages were assembled in the gym, each with three or four days’ worth of supplies to be delivered to a family in quarantine.

“It was an amazing thing to see,” Bargy said.

At the same time, the Boys & Girls Club staff used the new commercial kitchen to make 40,000 grab-and-go meals for anyone who stopped by.

“We handed them hot and nutritious meals each and every night,” Bargy recalled.

The Schenectady Foundation paid for half the cost of the effort, and another nonprofit that assists youths, C.O.C.O.A. House, delivered the meals to those who couldn’t stop by.

When the crisis stage of the pandemic passed, the gym went back to being a gym.

“There’s not a minute available in this gym,” Bargy said. “This gym has been nonstop since we were allowed to let people back in the building.”

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Categories: Life and Arts, Nonprofits 2021

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