On a hot summer day in Brawley, a group of children sat quietly in a cool gym, their attention on a California Highway Patrol K-9 Unit officer and his dog. Officer Bobby Gonzales talked to the kids about his work in the K-9 unit and his longtime canine partner. The children marveled at the animal, especially when it showed off its search skills and its ability to take down an assailant.
The kids were all members of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Imperial Valley, as was Gonzales when he was growing up in Brawley.
He said the Boys & Girls Clubs made a difference in his life during the years he attended, and it was an honor to be able to come back and share with the kids what he does—and maybe inspire them about their own futures.
For Misty Lee, executive director of the local Boys & Girls Clubs, and her Board of Directors, it means a great deal to see someone like Gonzales, who was a member of the organization, return to talk to the kids who today depend on its services both during the summer and during the school year.
What it shows is that the local chapter of the national Boys & Girls Clubs of America has been making a difference in the lives of Imperial Valley youths throughout the organization’s long history. It is a history that has spanned 50 years in the Valley—2016 was the organization’s 50th anniversary.
Hundreds of Valley young people, ages 5 to 18, are served by the organization each year. On any given day as many as a hundred kids will utilize the two facilities in Brawley and Holtville, where they can play, eat, learn and have help with their homework for a minimal cost of $25 a year, and free for some who are sponsored. The program prioritizes the development of academic success, healthy lifestyles, and good character and citizenship for the youth who participate.
“A lot of parents express to us how thankful they are for the services we provide,” Lee said. “It makes you feel like we are doing what we are supposed to be doing. We are filling a need here in the Imperial Valley.”
Lee was Interviewed at the organization’s Brawley office, located in the city’s South Plaza—across from the city library. The club has been a fixture in Brawley for all of its 50-plus years. In fact, before the club started to spread to other cities, for years it was called the Brawley Boys & Girls Club. Go back to its earlier beginnings and the club was known as the Boys Club even though it served girls. It was in the ’80s, as part of a nationwide movement in the organization, that it became known as the Boys & Girls Clubs.
This summer, inside the Brawley facility, as temperatures outside have boiled, the children there have been active—engaged in educational, enriching and fun activities led by a staff, many of whom have devoted years to the club. The staff works to ensure the kids have a safe environment where they can use their minds in fun ways during the long summer days. The kids’ arts and crafts projects, from drawings and paintings to dioramas, line the walls and shelves.
“The employees here don’t do what they do for the paycheck,” Lee said. “They love the kids. They are here to be good role models for them.”
One of the programs the kids engage in during the summer is the Summer Brain Gain, which is meant to offset the loss of learning that occurs during this time off from school. Each week the kids are taught a new curriculum and at the end of the week give presentations on what they learned.
Also this summer, the organization took more than twenty members to Coronado to the silver strand for an overnight camp. The kids learned to standup paddle-board and kayak. For some it was their first trip out of the Valley.
During the school year, the two facilities provide an environment from the time kids get out of school until their parents get off work where they can get help with their homework, have play time and engage in other educational activities. For example, the club does the Power Hour, where the kids first receive a snack, then receive help with their homework to foster academic success. After that first hour, they participate in games and other activities meant to build their social skills and positive relationships.
Then, there are the presentations, like the K-9 officer, where the kids are not only amazed by what they see, but also learn about career opportunities and how important it is that they stay in school, graduate high school and pursue some type of post-secondary education.
For Lee, the feedback she gets from the children means so much.
“I know for me there is so much satisfaction in hearing the kids say they had a good time, or hearing them repeat something that we have taught them,” she said. “To hear a child say something that shows they have developed more confidence is an amazing feeling. What it shows is the kids are taking the tools we give them and applying it to their lives.”
For many of the kids, they’d have nowhere else to go during the summer or after school if the Boys & Girls Clubs weren’t in operation.
“The Valley has a large percentage of single family homes or homes where both parents work,” said Craig Elmore, a member of the Board of Directors. “The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Imperial Valley provide a safe place for the members to go after school. The clubs also provide help for the members with their homework. By offering these services it keeps members out of the streets and into an environment where they are safe. The clubs give them a place to go after school where they have adult supervision and are able to form positive relationships with adult role models.”
But as a nonprofit, keeping the doors open is never an easy task, and sometimes, even with the daily successes of serving so many members, there can also be times where the battle to maintain operations doesn’t go the way the staff or board would like.
The shuttered El Centro facility is an example. In 2010, the clubs took the first step toward expanding beyond the Brawley office with the opening of a facility in El Centro. Then came the opening of Holtville three years later.
However, in 2016 they had to close the El Centro office due to lack of funding. Lee, who began her tenure in 2016 as executive director, said it was a heartbreaking moment, and not one she ever wants to face again.
Lee, a former U.S. Marine and mother to three children who were also served by the Boys & Girls Clubs, said as tough as that setback was, her time as a Marine taught her the resolve to move the organization forward.
While she and her board still have their eyes set on expansion, their current focus is on ensuring there are sustainable funding resources.
Elmore agreed, adding: “The need in every city is high for a Boys & Girls Club. We have been approached by other communities for clubs, but Board is focused on sustainability and improving the quality of our programming before we can expand our much-needed services.
The organization receives the majority of its funding from local donations, with much of that coming from the farming community, the beef industry, local businesses and even local families and individuals, many of whom have a long history with the club, both in attending as youths and in serving the organization as adults. She added that while the club is part of the strong national brand of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, as a local chapter it is autonomous and every dollar donated here stays in the Valley to serve the local youth.
Fund-raising events are another critical way the organization brings in revenue, with the lead event being the Combo Auction held in October.
Elmore said of the Combo Auction: “It’s a fun night with many supporters bidding on items to support the Boys & Girls Clubs. The club is always looking for supporters who can help offset the cost of the event. Plus supporters who may have an item or are willing to financially cover the cost of a trip or other item.”
Another fund-raising effort getting ready to launch is the monthly giving campaign in which the organization will seek pledges from donors of a monthly donation.
Other funding for the organization comes from grants from local governing agencies, like the Imperial Irrigation District and Imperial County, and companies, like Macy’s and Ross. One other critical partnership is with the Neighborhood House of Calexico, which provides food daily to the organization for the children.
“We value the partnership with Neighborhood House so much,” Lee said. “They bring the food at no cost to the children.”
Going forward, one of her and her board’s priorities is to work on developing additional funding that will ensure sustainability and allow for a new period of growth.
“Our board is working very hard right now on creating a pipeline of funding to the organization, and that funding will go right back into our kids,” she said, adding: “Our long term goal is to be in every community in the Imperial Valley.”
That goal may take some time, but that doesn’t mean growth is on hold for the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Imperial Valley. Right now, the organization is working with Brawley Union High School, Barbara Worth Junior High School and the city of Brawley through its Teen Center to reach a larger number of teenagers.
That, she said, needs to happen sooner rather than later.
To that end, the organization has hired a teen coordinator who will work on developing programs to engage the teens. The ultimate goal of a teen program is to have a role in helping them see all the opportunities available to them after high school, especially if they choose a path toward a post-secondary education.
Lee pointed out that for the Boys & Girls Clubs to have the most impact in a young person’s life, the youths need to stay engaged with the clubs from elementary school, to junior high, through high school to reinforce the idea that they can accomplish anything they want.
“There are a lot of kids who don’t have opportunities and are not told they can be whatever they want to be,” she said. “We want these kids to graduate high school and graduate with a plan, so that they can become productive, responsible and caring citizens.”
Lee said she is confident the local Boys & Girls Clubs will continue to help local kids and teens, will expand the services, and it will happen largely due to the support of the community.
“Our supporters are so passionate about what they do and passionate about serving the community,” she said, adding that many of the families that started the club some 50 years ago are still involved today. “We are a very blessed organization to have the support we have.”