July 21, 2012 5:00:30 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
BY JAN SWOOPE
The brightly-lit gymnasium of the Boys & Girls Club in Columbus reverberated with laughter Wednesday afternoon. The song "Ice Cream Freeze," by Hannah Montana, began on a laptop in one corner of the cavernous space, cueing a dance team to begin its routine.
With rhythmic clapping, spins and grins, the troupe of young girls rehearsed, fine tuning their moves for a talent show July 24. That's when club doors open for parents, friends and community to visit this place more than 150 children flock to almost every weekday year-round.
Good things are going on at the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Golden Triangle, and Executive Director Joyce Ellenwood is eager to share that news.
"We really want to re-introduce ourselves to the community and let everyone know about some ways we've tweaked what we're doing," said Ellenwood.
The New Jersey native took the position overseeing the Columbus and Starkville clubs in the fall of 2011. She and Unit Directors Stevie Moody in Columbus, and Jacquie Myers in Starkville, plus the staff at each facility, hope to rally the public to help ensure these children are never among the three out of 10 kids in America who won't graduate from high school on time. Or part of the 15.1 million youngsters the national Boys & Girls Club cites are left unsupervised after school.
Without better choices, children will find their own recreation and companionship on the streets, especially between the hours of 3-7 p.m., when statistics show juvenile crime escalates.
Boys & Girls Clubs offer alternatives.
The nonprofit organization's first priority is to provide a safe place to learn and grow. Facilities are open all day during summer camp and from 2:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. every day after school. Afternoons August through May, children arrive by school bus or family car, sign in and report to assigned rooms for Power Hour -- an hour dedicated to homework and academic goals.
Eleven-year-old Alex Davis said that hour is a boost.
"They will help you with your homework if you need it," the Columbus Middle School seventh-grader shared. The young aspiring architect uses some of his club time to work on his notebooks filled with structural drawings. When Ellenwood first saw the quality of his work, she immediately reached out to Mississippi State's architecture department to request a mentor for Davis.
"We want to build our community relationships," the director noted. "For example, with Mississippi University for Women, we might ask if someone would come talk to our kids about careers, or about culinary arts. And we had enthusiastic volunteers from Junior Auxiliary with us this summer for summer camp."
At the core
After Power Hour, afternoons are filled with activities from several major core programs -- Education and Career, Character and Leadership, Health and Life Skills, and The Arts -- interspersed with time for play, snacks (there is a full-size kitchen) and gym.
In one classroom Wednesday, attentive fourth- and fifth-graders reviewed a unit with Nicki Sykes, one of the Columbus club's staff members.
"All of us get mad at some point but we all have to control our, what?" Sykes asked the kids, in a series of rapid-fire questions.
"Temper!" the children chorused. This is ground they have covered before; it's revisited for reinforcement.
"I like to run programs to see what they know," said Sykes. One of her recent projects was triggered when she realized many younger students didn't know basic emergency information.
"They learned to be able to give their name, address, phone number and parents' names so they could at least give police that if they got separated from their family," she explained.
Programs are varied and stimulating. Some days students learn about eating healthy and table etiquette. A Smart Moves unit for older participants addresses peer pressure and substance abuse. The Smart Girls program delves into self-image, confidence and even dating. Youngsters transitioning from elementary to middle school are coached on the changes they should expect. Teens are counseled on topics ranging from budgeting to careers.
Leadership initiatives include the Torch Club for kids 13-15 and the Keystone Club for those 16-18. Community service activities have included neighborhood clean-up and visiting nursing homes.
"Really, we're just trying to prepare them for life," said Sykes.
New this fall
Traditionally, students are registered at Boys & Girls Clubs for a whole semester. Beginning this school year, however, a new drop-in policy will allow children who don't attend daily to come on a per-day basis, when parents or grandparents need a trusted place for a child to go. The cost is $10 per day. Parents need to fill out a brief application form in advance.
The clubs will also soon introduce Kidstock, a new fundraising campaign. "Investors" are asked to purchase "shares" in the future of their communities. Each share is $25. Investors will receive a unique stock certificate and reports on how their stock has appreciated and the specific ways they have changed lives.
In today's economic conditions, Ellenwood noted, it costs about $1,200 to put each of the almost 300 children enrolled in the two clubs through quality programming.
"We've set an aggressive goal of $30,000 for Kidstock, and with the communities' help, we can reach it," the director emphasized.
Golden Triangle clubs would also benefit from donations of computers, board games and even daily supplies, such as construction paper, pens and pencils.
"Sports equipment, like cones, mats, hoops, kickballs, volleyballs, and anything that has 'ball' on the end of it would be welcome," smiled Ellenwood.
Stevie Moody, unit director at the Columbus location, remarked, "The community's support is so important in keeping the doors open, for youth to have a safe place to come during summer and after school."
He reiterated the invitation to anyone interested to attend the Columbus club's talent show July 24 at 2 p.m., to tour the facility and meet the staff -- to see firsthand how they can help make the clubs' slogan "Great futures start here" a reality.
Editor's note: The Boys & Girls Club in Columbus is located at 1815 14th Ave. N. (662-244-7090). The Boys & Girls Club in Starkville is at 911 Lynn Lane (662-615-9980). The clubs are United Way agencies.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.