“Our mission is to reach all kids, particularly those who need us the most to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens,” said Stephen Giordano, President and CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Polk County. Giordano has been a for-profit CEO for the last 20-something years. Head hunters would seek him out to turn around troubled companies across the country. The seven units of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Polk County planned to merge and needed a CEO. After interviewing with board members, he was selected and hired as the President and CEO in January of 2019.
Accomplishing their mission on a micro-level, Giordano explained, is in a B, C, or D school with a population of at-risk kids. “That population can’t really afford to keep their kids active during the summer, they can’t afford after school care, so the parents are somewhat limited. One of the terrific things we do is have a place for them to go.” However, the Boys & Girls Club is much more than a place to go. They provide after school programs to help children with academics, health, character, and leadership backed by their staff of volunteers, mentors, teachers, tutors, and unit directors.
The program Power Hour, for example, dedicates the first hour of arrival to homework. If a child doesn’t have homework, the staff will find a subject they may struggle with at school and supplement that with real tutors. Triple Play is an activity offering a holistic approach to the mind, body, and soul of each child, according to their website. It is “aimed to improve Club Members’ knowledge of healthy habits; increase the number of hours per day they participate in physical activities; and strengthen their ability to interact positively with others and engage in positive relationships.” After this, the Boys & Girls Club feed kids a healthy meal.
“The combination of all of these programs leads to some interesting causal solutions to the community’s problems,” Giordano said. “We have 689,000 people in Polk County. Probably 100k are living at or below the poverty level. That produces probably 55k at-risk kids. [...] These are kids who don’t have great options. Left to their own devices, we know what happens – they get involved with crime, they don’t graduate high school at the same ratio as other kids, and they are not fed [nutritious meals].”
“When we show up, crime drops because we are 3 to 7, which is a prime crime time. Crime drops by 25 - 30%, high school graduation improves by 35%, obesity goes down, and nutrition goes up.”
An eighth location of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Polk County is set to open in Bartow. Between all of their units, the organization currently serves 2,500 kids within the county. “Our goal, the board has decided this during our strategic initiative, is that over the next five years, we’re going to reach 10,000 kids,” said Giordano.
The focus on character and leadership through Keystone Clubs, Torch Club, and Youth of the Month set children on the right path, giving them positive goals for which to strive. “What we find is that the more that we can structure aspirational programs for the kids – like being on the Torch Club or to be a Youth of the Year candidate – the more we can keep them the older they get,” said the president and CEO. The organization has no problem retaining younger children; there’s a waiting list, in fact. But as they grow into their teens, they can drift from the program’s positive impacts.
“What we’re really proud of is we get these kids back as volunteers because we’ve involved them,” said Giordano. “Let’s say you’re in the Torch Club, and one day a week, you are going to be a supervisor of the homework room. Now you get a sense of what it’s like to volunteer and help other kids. There’s not a kid that you can find who has gone through that transition who won’t tell you what they’ve learned and what it means to be a mentor. […] I’m most proud of how then we’re able to roll them into their next role with us.”
One such former Boys & Girls Club member-turned-volunteer is 20-year-old Cameron Jones.
Jones, who has attended the Boys & Girls Club since he was around eight years old, studies Political Science at Polk State College. What interested him in the subject? “It was actually a trip that the Boys & Girls Club took us on. I was in seventh grade, and we were studying Civics. One of our trips was going to the capitol. We went to the governor’s building, and we visited the old courthouse. Right then and there, I thought this was something I wanted to do.” After college, he plans to study law and eventually run for political office. “My goal is to become governor,” said Jones.
Jones recollected his experience with the Boys & Girls Club. “My mom is a single parent. Usual daycares were too expensive, or they couldn’t work with her hours because of the time she got off. Coming here, where she didn’t have to pay so much at that time, and she didn’t have to worry about pickup, was something amazing for her.”
“I’m the only child, so coming here with other kids and playing with them, it was like a family kind of bond I had – you had your older brothers and sisters in the older groups, and you had the little ones that were like your little siblings. It was always a fun day; it was never boring. We played every day, laughed every day.” In addition to his many older and younger ‘brothers and sisters,’ club staff also influenced him, like Director of Operations, John Lane. Jones said Lane started working there at the same time he began attending. They would always talk to each other about their days, and Lane was always there for him, he said.
Going to the Boys & Girls Club set Jones on the right path. He wanted to pay that forward and be the same influence that Lane was to him. “What made me want to volunteer here was because you never forget where you came from, and I always did want to come back to help out, whatever I could do, whether that was helping with homework or talking to kids,” he said. “I want them to know that there are still good people, people do want to help you out, and people do care.”
Jones discussed certain stereotypes he feels are placed on the organization and its members. “I know a lot of people in the past gave Boys & Girls Club a bad rap saying only the bad kids go there. They’re not bad kids. They’re just not given the same opportunity as everyone else,” he said. “When they come here, we help them out – we teach them.” Jones comes every day, helping with homework and group activities. As much of an impact as he certainly has on the kids, he said, “I feel like we learn more from them than they do from us.”
One Hundred Thousand Meals
Following the school board’s reaction to the pandemic’s initial impacts, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Polk County closed its doors. “We immediately shifted into virtual programming,” said Giordano. Within a week and a half, they had uploaded one hundred videos for the students. “We had Keri White, our Unit Director in one of our Lakeland units, every night in her pajamas would read a bedtime story. It was the most attended virtual learning we had,” he said.
Next, they focused on getting connectivity to their kids, as many didn’t have it. The families were given a survey to find out what their needs were. “We hoped that would be virtual learning because that’s what we were gearing up to do, but we weren’t right. What they most needed was food.” Serendipitously, the clubs had just obtained their licensing to serve hot meals in all seven of their locations. It was time to feed their kids. At first, the meals were wrap-and-go. This was in March when many were uncomfortable traveling outside of their homes to pick up meals, even if they needed them. The Boys & Girls Clubs took the initiative and began delivering meals to member communities around the county.
“There are kids living in horrific situations who would be waiting with their friends for our little bus to show up for the meals,” said Giordano. Another family said they had been praying the night before as both parents had been laid off. They didn’t have a solution for food, and then the Boys & Girls Club showed up. These were only a few of the heartbreaking stories they encountered during their meal deliveries.
This also meant extended hours for the organization. “We are providing summer service, with social distancing, with masks, with temperature checks, and the schools are not ready to open – what do we do?” Giordano remembers thinking. He went to the board with the predicament of needing to stay open without the funds to do so. They asked him how much it would cost to remain open – the answer was $80,000 a week. “They said, ‘We’ll figure it out some way – stay open.’” So, they did. The Boys & Girls Clubs stayed open longer, fed children, had an extended summer, and when schools reopened, they shifted back into their after-school mode. Between the onset of the virus and the time kids returned to school, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Polk County served 100,000 meals.
Increased health safety measures mean Giordano had to increase staff by 30% over last year. The Club has lower attendance, lower income, and increased staff. Funding has proved the most crucial need for them. “Food isn’t the problem – there’s plenty of food. It’s the distribution systems that change. It’s getting them the food,” Giordano said. Cooking and delivering food and employing teachers, tutors, and staff requires funding to run. “That is the heart of what we do.”
“We’ve got a program that works. The statistics don’t lie. Maybe one of the most important programs that are backed by imperial data is Brain Game,” said Giordano. He explained it as follows. Child A is from an at-risk community, and Child B is middle-class or wealthy. They start kindergarten with parallel cognitive abilities. Through kindergarten and first grade, they tend to stay on equal footing in their education. The difference comes during the summer. Child A doesn’t have the opportunity to go anywhere while Child B reads books, participates in summer activities, and takes trips with their family. As they both move into second grade, the at-risk Child A falls back a little bit. By the time they reach sixth grade, Child A is two years behind Child B because of all of the summer slides they had to endure. “Brain Gain is a system that we have to arrest summer slide,” he said. Their goal is as the children move forward in their education and upward in grade level, they’ve got opportunities equal to their classmates.
“That’s hard to do. It takes real programs and real testing and real mentors and real tutors, which takes money,” said Giordano. “So, if you believe in that, and I certainly do, then there is no better way to invest your money because for every dollar invested, the community gets back $17 in real economic value.” That value comes by way of higher graduation levels, less violent crime, increased nutrition, and giving parents the ability to continue working while their child is at the Boys & Girls Club. “There are lots of people who address certain parts of the kid. We get the whole kid from head to heart to legs; we get it all.”
Donations can be made directly through their website. Donors can specify, if they so choose, where their funds go across the county’s units.
FORE the Kids
Later this month, on November 16, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Polk County will hold their annual fundraising event, FORE the Kids. This golfing tournament supports the organization’s efforts and gives participants the chance to win prizes, including a trip to Scotland, a new vehicle, and more. As attendees travel to a new hole, they can scan a QR code and see a video of a child introducing themselves, talking about what they love about the Boys & Girls Clubs, and thanking them for attending the fundraiser. Sponsorships and foursomes are still available.
Another fundraising event, Guest Bartender Bash, has been postponed, likely to be held sometime in December. Follow their social media for updates on the occasion.
A Ripple of Hope
“There’s somebody in your life that you look up to. […] Somebody you looked up to broadened your horizons. And when they did, it was never the same again,” said Giordano. That person, whether a parent, coach, or teacher, created a ripple effect of opportunity.
“Without that broadening ripple effect, our kids tend to wind up just as you might imagine them to – not graduating in low-skill, low-paying jobs or in trouble with the law or obese,” he said.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Polk County are creating that ripple, extending opportunities for these children, and broadening their future. “We are dealers in hope,” said Giordano. “We shift the hope trajectory of the community. The community gets better when we do.”
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