“It helps parents give their children mentors,” Ivy said of the program that’s been a decades-long fixture locally and in many other communities.
She was devastated to learn the 15th Street location had closed.
“My heart sank,” she said.
While living in Carterville, in southern Illinois, Ivy’s daughters, 8-year-old Hailey and 6-year-old India, attended Boys & Girls Clubs programs. Ivy herself did the same while growing up in Chicago.
After a hiatus from mid-August 2010 through mid-February 2011, during which the future of the organization in Springfield was in serious doubt, the Boys & Girls Clubs raised money and reopened. In January, the club's board brought Douglas King in to serve as executive director.
King, who lives in Springfield, had retired in 2009 after 22 years working in state government. While he says he enjoyed the time off, he added that he’s always understood Springfield’s need for the Boys & Girls Clubs and didn’t want to see another east-side institution's demise.
The Boys & Girls Clubs began providing services in the city 56 years ago.
“It has become an institution here in Springfield,” King said.
This year, between its two after-school programs, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Illinois (that also includes branches in Decatur, Bloomington, Champaign and Peoria) has grown to serve between 2,700 and 3,000 children, King said. Children in the past have also been able to attend an all-day summer camp, though the club hasn’t used its Lake Springfield Camp Sertoma facility in more than a year.
The Boys & Girls Clubs started with a recreational focus, and still encompasses sports, but King said the primary aim now in boosting academics, developing life skills and inspiring children to become better citizens.
When 10-year-old Cheyenne Banks needed help with her math, the program’s employees stepped in, according to his mom, Shiela Levy. Banks and his 14-year-old brother, Jayland Grigsby-Levy, attend the after-school program, and Levy said they frequently ask her if they can stay later than planned.
Banks said he loves the computer lab and the time to read.
“They offer so many activities, and it’s affordable,” Levy said.
It costs parents just $1 to be a Boys & Girls Clubs member and attend Teen REACH after-school programs.
Levy said she loves to see her children socialize with their peers, while getting mental and physical stimulation. The program is important to the family, she said, as Levy’s grandkids also utilize Boys & Girls Clubs activities.
Recreational activities still draw children in, but the organization provides opportunities for them to learn, said Peter “Cass” Casper of Springfield, who chairs the board that oversees the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Illinois.
“Once you can get them there, there's just a lot of great things that can happen,” Casper said.
Ivy’s girls especially enjoy the partnership with the Springfield Ballet Company, she said, and their mother appreciates the myriad of programming offered. She credited the staff for keeping her children involved.
“The creativity of the staff is amazing,” Ivy said.
King said that in his 10 months as director, he’s worked to add more partnerships, teaming up with the Gateway Foundation and the Faith Coalition for the Common Good, among others.
“We can’t provide (for) every need,” he said. “There are other folks that have a place in these kids’ lives.”
On Saturday, for instance, members of the Pawnee and Rochester fire departments took Boys & Girls Clubs members shopping to buy gifts for their families. Such activities teach children to be grateful, and the Boys & Girls Clubs staff made sure each child thought about who they appreciated, Ivy said.
It was a lack of staffing and poor decision-making that left the organization in trouble, King said.
And Springfield’s branch had difficulty finding a permanent director after longtime leader Kristin Allen stepped down, Casper said.
Still, the organization’s primary problem stemmed from funding cuts and the economic downturn, according to King. The state slashed the total budget for all Teen REACH programs from $14 million during fiscal 2011 to $8.2 million for the current fiscal year, which began July 1. Springfield’s portion of the statewide budget is just over $61,000, compared to the $91,000 it received last year.
Teen REACH is an after-school program conducted at the main 15th Street facility that emphasizes educational achievement through homework help, one-on-one tutoring and reading time. In addition, children in the program participate in art, music, computer-skill building and recreation.
“Our finances were out of whack,” Casper said.
However, King is working to find more local funding from foundations and other private entities.
“If you don't have the right leader at the helm, you're not going to do well,” Casper said, adding that he feels King is the right man for the job.
So far, King said he’s added weekend mentoring programs — one for boys and one for girls. These programs partner University of Illinois Springfield students with local children for tutoring.
“Kids look up to people who could be their older brother or older sister," King said. "It's easier for them to connect to folks who are closer in age to them."
And in January, the club is adding five 21st Century Community Learning Centers Programs in Springfield’s elementary and middle schools. King said this will allow for citywide coverage, bringing to 11 the local and area schools that offer the U.S. Department of Education’s 21st Century, an after-school initiative for at-risk students.
Ivy and Levy both work past the close of the school day. They say the Teen REACH program assures them that their children are in a safe environment.
“They’re not on the street,” Levy said. “They have somewhere safe to go.”
Plus, children start their homework with supervision while at the club, giving them a head start before they get home, Levy said, adding, “I didn’t have this opportunity.”
The Boys & Girls Clubs staff is important in her children’s lives, Levy said.
“These children need these male role models,” she said. “They keep you aware of what’s going on with your children.”
King said he understands “young folks have changed.”
“They need something more,” he explained. “They have all kinds of challenges today that we didn't have.”
King himself grew up in a low-income family, but said he didn’t even realize it at the time. Today’s children are all too aware of their economic and family situations, he said.
In addition, club staff don't always know what environments children are coming from, King said.
“We don't know what happened to them on the bus that dropped them off at the door,” he said. “Whatever happened, we have to provide a place for them where they feel again safe and secure.”
Ivy said she was ecstatic when she heard the 15th Street location would reopen, and she’s still enthusiastic.
“I have no complaints,” she said of the Boys & Girls Clubs program. “I love it.”
Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Illinois, Springfield branch
Established locally: 1955
Executive director: Douglas King, with a full-time staff of four other people and four part-timers