Mission: Life, Liberty and Hope
Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County’s building and trades program gets alums to work
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County, a beacon of light for at-risk youth since 1965, as well as its building and trades program, is putting alums to work. For the past six decades, the nonprofit has been in the business of building lives—molding youth in body, mind and spirit into figurative brick and mortar as servant leaders, good family-oriented men and women and, in the parlance of an earlier day, “men better fitted for the responsibilities of citizenship.”
In those early days, “men” fit. It was a club for only boys. It wasn’t until 1990 that girls were added to the list of clients.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County has done its work through program areas designed to nurture academic success, a healthy lifestyle and good character and citizenship. The sense of belonging that all members are clothed in really does wonders.
The club’s mantra: A person’s circumstances and background shouldn’t determine their access to opportunities and experiences.
Path to Building Trades
To many, life after graduating the Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County means going off to pursue academia in a post-secondary, university setting. In fact, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America boasts a high school graduation rate of a remarkable 97% among its members, according to data published on its website. Moreover, 88% expect to complete some kind of post-secondary education.
And for that, many huzzahs are offered.
For others, however, post-secondary options are not part of the future. Not everyone is built for English Lit 101 or a course of study in the humanities, engineering or law.
And there’s not a thing wrong with that.
Many alums are proudly making a living in the building trades.
To that end, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County is now building, literally. Its Generals Club program was developed to encourage and mentor members in the building and construction trades.
“We’ve created a program that introduces our members to the building industry,” says Matt Organ, who with Chris Gentile, is the Co-CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County.
It is a “robust workforce development program,” Organ says, that includes 40-50 trades, including general contracting, working cranes and air-conditioning services. Leaders in the construction industry also join on career day to talk with teens about working with their hands.
In yesteryear, clubs like this would take kids off the street and put them in a swimming pool or otherwise keep them busy.
“That’s not us,” Organ says. “We’re getting our kids ready for when they graduate from the Boys & Girls Clubs and get into society. We want them to be productive, be able to make a good living, support their families, whatever form that might take.”
A Five-Star History
The story of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America begins in 1860 with two sisters, Mary and Alice Goodwin, and their friend, Elizabeth Hammersley, in Hartford, Connecticut. The three took pity on what had been described as a group of lonely and shabby boys, according to a history published by Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).
They invited them in for refreshments and recreation. Soon enough, the demand required the three good Samaritans of Hartford to rent a meeting hall. They expanded the recreation to include drama, music and education.
Out of that test tube grew one of America’s most profound youth organizations.
Today, the organization has a membership of 4.2 million boys and girls ages 6 to 18. These clubs are staffed by more than 50,000 trained professionals in locations throughout all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and on U.S. military bases worldwide, according to a VCU publication. The membership is 55% boys and 45% girls, according to data released by the club in 2017.
In Broward County, the Boys & Girls Clubs served more than 12,000 young people before the COVID-19 pandemic. The clubs are strategically placed near schools, so children can get to them easily. When the pandemic shut schools down, that hurt the club’s access to the kids. It went from a high of seeing 2,400 kids a day to a pandemic-low of 600. Today, Organ says that the club sees about 1,100 young people daily.
The annual fee for membership is $15.
“The pandemic definitely impacted our programming,” Organ says. “And we’re not out of the woods yet with this pandemic.”
The virus also impacted the club’s finances, going from a pre-Covid budget of $13 million to $11 million today.
Despite it all, the club kept working, to date serving more than 250,000 meals and snacks throughout the ongoing surges in virus cases.
“We didn’t want our kids to go hungry, so we set up outside,” Organ says. “We made sure we fed our kids.”
Earning a Reputation
Organ, whose entire career has been spent with the Boys & Girls Clubs, a time spanning 40 years, is a descendant of the organization’s original Connecticut roots. A graduate of Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, Organ began as a volunteer with the Wallingford Boys Club in Hamden.
“My boss from the Wallingford club came to Broward County,” Organ recalls. “He called me and said, ‘When you graduate [in May 1981], do you want to come down? I’ve got a job for you.’
“I’ve been here since September 1981.”
In June 2020, the Board of Directors of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County appointed Organ and Gentile as Co-CEOs.
Before joining the Boys & Girls Clubs in 2015 as Chief Development Officer, Gentile, a graduate of Florida State University, worked in management positions for the American Heart Association and AT&T.
As the joint “co” indicates, the two have split the administrative tasks that once were under one silo.
For 10 consecutive years, Charity Navigator has awarded the Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County with a four-star rating—its top rating. Charity Navigator evaluates nonprofits financial health, including measures of stability, efficiency and sustainability, while also tracking its accountability and transparency.
The rating is also a recommendation. In other words, donors can give “with confidence.”
Less than 7% of the donated dollars go to administrative costs or overhead, the club boasts.
Study after study over the years has shown that the programs of the Boys & Girls Club work.
A study conducted by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, titled “Boys and Girls Clubs Gang Prevention Through Targeted Outreach: An Effective Practice,” was published in 2002. It affirmed that intervention programs resulted in demonstrated positive outcomes. These include: delayed onset of gang behavior, such as less likely to start wearing gang colors; less contact with the juvenile justice system; fewer delinquent behaviors, such as stealing and less likely to start smoking pot; improved school outcomes, more positive social relationships and productive use of out-of-school time.
Organ cited another study from an independent group that showed the return on every dollar spent at the club was $18.45. There were a number of measurables, including parents being able to stay later at work or finish school because their kids have a safe place to be and declines in teenage pregnancies, alcohol and drug use and crime rates.
“It’s not rocket science,” says Organ. “When you build a club and put it in a neighborhood with need, and have good programs and good staff…it’s not if you build it they will come; it’s if you have good programs and quality staff and good mentors who care, then they will come."
“Once they start coming in the building, they won’t leave. That means they’re not on the street and juvenile [delinquent behavior] crime will drop.”
Going to Work
In addition to its elite four-star rating, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County was also recognized by the Florida Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs, awarded for “Defeating Food Insecurity” with its robust snack and meal program.
The same organization also presented the Generals Club with the Education and Career Development Award.
The Generals Club was created in the early aughts. It is made up of construction professionals that support the Boys & Girls Clubs both financially and, as/or more importantly, developing programs that support and engage young people to enter the construction industry.
Its benefits are twofold: It allows young people a sense of achievement, confidence and belonging by introducing them to the building trades and offers a foothold in a career that will allow them to make a reasonable living and successfully support a family.
Organ estimated that about 35 Generals Club alums have made careers in the trades, from drywall, to cranes, to air conditioning.
The Generals Club focuses on young people beginning at around 15 to 18 years old with programming through the year, including safety classes and trips to job sites and a Habitat for Humanity site. “We’ve got kids wearing hard hats and swinging hammers,” Organ says.
“They’re starting to make a livelihood. That’s what we’re really proud of,” Organ says, while noting that the average crane operator in south Florida is 55. “They’re aging out. We might have a pipeline to the growing need of the workforce in the building trades.”
The Generals Club Co-Chairs are Jim Robertson; Bob Case, a founder of the Generals Club; his wife, Debi Case; and Annie Mecias-Murphy.
“They’re an immovable force, the four of them,” Organ said. “Together, they are changing lives. They’re imbedded into the building industry, the community, they know who’s who. They make things happen. They raise a ton of money so we can get the kids in those fields.”
Rick Case, one of the most prolific givers and doers for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County, died in September. Organ says his memory will live on in the achievements of the lives he helped change.
“Our board of directors, volunteers, committee members, they’re not getting a paycheck,” Organ says. “Their only skin in the game is to make a difference in a young person’s life. Their passion provides opportunities for hope and in young people who thought there was none.”