Boys & Girls Club seeks new normalcy

Published 12:14 am Sunday, October 23, 2011

NATCHEZ — Esther Perry said she hopes her grandchildren will soon have somewhere to go after school instead of home alone once the Boys & Girls Club of Miss-Lou ramps up operation back to normal.

But normal is a level of stability the BGC has not known in more than a year, club Director Fay Minor said.

Financial troubles have forced the club to close its doors all but two days each week this month.

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And from July until a few weeks ago, the club shut its doors altogether, Minor said.

Perry, who is a part-time office manager, volunteer at the club and grandmother to students who use its services, said her grandchildren used to go from school to the BGC before their parents got home from work.

“They look forward to coming, we offer tutoring and recreation activities, and it provides a safe haven for the children when there’s no place to go,” Perry said.

Perry said parents have been feeling the loss of a fully operational club as well.

“A lot of the parents that I see periodically are saying the same thing, (their children) are having to go home alone because they work.

“(Parents) keep calling and asking when are we going to open back up,” she said.

A turnaround might be in the near future, since the school board of the Natchez-Adams School District approved a partnership with the club at an Oct. 13 board meeting that would provide the club with more than $71,000 in federal 21st Century Grant funds.

“That was a blessing for us,” Minor said. “I’m excited, just for the kids.”

The good news was the first bit of its kind in a long time, she said.

Struggling to stay open

Minor said the board faced a difficult decision this summer about whether or not the club could continue to exist as a nonprofit corporation.

“In July, we really battled trying to stay open as a club,” Minor said.

“There are a lot of Boys and Girls Clubs that have closed in Mississippi.”

While the club board members usually meet twice a month, active members have been recently meeting approximately four times a month to address financial problems and ways to make operations more viable.

Minor said funding is a constant issue for the nonprofit, but times have been especially tight since the fall of the 2010-2011 school year.

In addition to bills and insurance, much of the funding at the club is spent on certified teachers, she said.

And since the number of students the club can legally serve is based on the number of certified tutors, Minor said less children have been able to attend since the club cannot afford to staff more people all week.

Minor said at the club’s peak, prior to 2006, it served approximately 400 children a day at several locations and 1,800 children were members of the club.

Last week, 15 to 25 children showed up Monday and Tuesday when the club was open, she said, and 600 children are members.

Minor said a weekly struggle to stay open has caused operation scheduling to be inconsistent.

“We go into one week, expect money and may not receive that money. (A struggle to operate) is week-to-week, day-to-day. It’s hard on parents, staff, everybody,” she said.

As a result of the inconsistent schedule, Minor said many parents have placed their children in day care alternatives or the children are simply going home after school.

Federal funding woes

Minor said the biggest hit financially has come in the last year when dollars from the federal government directed to the local club through the Boys & Girls Club of America stopped coming.

The approximately 10-year-old local club received between $177,000 to $299,000 in outside funding in the past, Minor said.

“In one year’s time (federal funding) went down to $50,000,” she said.

And since Natchez is a smaller community than larger cities, there is less of a local or individual support cushion to soften the blow, she said.

“It’s hard for people to give right now,” Minor said.

Spokesperson for the BGC of America, Jan Still-Lindeman, said government dollars coming into the national organization were not cut, but redirected.

“Most funds are very specifically restricted for mentoring projects. If (a club) didn’t meet the guidelines of that particular grant it was not eligible for monies,” Still-Lindeman said.

She said in the past, the funds were more readily available without much restriction.

However Still-Lindeman said the BGC of America just received word that the federal government it will allocate $48.3 million, and all but 8 percent of the monies will be passed through BGC of America to local clubs.

Still-Lindeman said she was not sure if the BGC of Miss-Lou would be a recipient of the funds. But Minor said the club applied for a grant approximately a week ago and received unofficial word that they would most likely be approved.

Past partnerships

Boys & Girls Club of Miss-Lou board member Phillip West said the Natchez-Adams County School District used to partner with BGC prior to 2006 until the district ended the partnership.

The club hosted locations at Frazier Primary, McLaurin Elementary, Morgantown Elementary and Robert Lewis Middle schools.

Still-Lindeman said school district partnerships are common and often assist clubs when federal funds do not come through. However, those partnerships are subject to change depending on the superintendent and how that superintendent decides to spend the district’s monies.

The Miss-Lou club, at one time, also received and distributed funds to three other clubs in surrounding areas including Vicksburg, Hazlehurst and Fayette, board member Philip West said.

“It was a compliment that we were that organized and doing so well locally that the regional office made (the other locations) come to us,” West said.

West said Miss-Lou club no longer operates the other clubs, and he believes at least some of them have since closed.

Transportation to a club not on a school site also became an issue once the partnership with the district dissolved, Minor said.

New partnerships

Minor said she is currently working with the school district and other agencies to prepare new programs that will be put in place with the 21st Century grant, including better organized bussing to the club.

In agreement with the school district partnership, the BGC will provide a number of services.

Among them will be after-school tutoring including monitoring and reporting improvement in grades, attendance and behavior. Also at the club will be character and leadership programs, a swimming program and other recreational activities.

As part of the agreement all programs will “follow the same rigorous schedules and standards,” and club leaders will meet with NASD staff to monitor progress, according to a letter sent from NASD Federal Programs Director Marilyn Alexander-Turner to Interim Superintendent Joyce Johnson.

Minor said the club will be closed most of this week while planning resumes. She hopes to open late this week or early next week to with the new programs in place.

Minor said she is also been in talks with universities including Alcorn State University and therapeutic recreation program participants at Louisiana State University about the possibility of partnering with them.

West said the board is also making additional efforts to organize major fundraisers including a golf tournament and steak dinner, which he said the club has not hosted in three years.

Anyone interested in volunteering at the club should call Minor at 601-597-5992 or the Margaret Martin office at 601-304-5548.

A community haven

Perry said she looks forward to better days ahead and regularly opened doors at the BGC.

“To be honest in this day in time, it’s really scary when children have to go home and be by themselves … too much is going on, even in our little community here in Natchez,” she said.

In addition, her grandchildren miss going to the club every day.

Minor said some might criticize the club by calling it a babysitting service. Although she sees it as offering much more than day care, Minor said.

“If you want to call us a babysitting program we’ll accept that as long as children are in the program and doing something positive,” Minor said.

She said national statistics show that students who attend BGC have improved test scores.

“We’re just really trying to stay (focused) on the fact that this is our community, and the more kids getting involved the better off they’ll be.”