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Growing Up

Posted On October 6, 2020

The Boys & Girls Club of the Plateau expands youth development

By KAT FORD

Navigating the ever-changing waters of adolescence is a skill we all must learn. It is an intimately personal journey; everyone experiences unique circumstances- a distinctive set of tools, a custom-made boat. As a child growing up in a rural community, I can say that there was fairytale-like freedom in country living for me. I can also say that at times I felt like an exciting yet foreign movie was happening in a neighboring universe (in my case, that universe looked like a mid 90s MTV music video), and my friends and I were fixated on the possibility of getting there, wherever ‘there’ might be. So, it didn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination for me to understand the excitement in the voice of two men as they made a presentation while standing under a white tent on a new plot of land purchased by the Boys & Girls Club of the Plateau (BGCP). Josh Helms, executive director, and Nat Turner, president of the board of directors, pointed at blue stakes as they walked me through where a new building would one day sit. With a five-year track record of implementing proven strategies for excellence in child and teen development in southern Jackson County, the Club is ready for a larger place to allow rural children to flourish. A place to prepare young boats for navigating the waters of neighboring universes.

Opening on September 15th of 2014, BGCP’s charter covers both Jackson County and Macon County. While current programming serves southern Jackson County, with continued success, the Club plans to expand in future years to service the youth of Cullowhee, Tuckasegee, Sylva, Highlands, and Franklin. Possible options include seeking additional funding for a bus and staff member to transport children to and from other locations. As of 2020, BGCP enrolled 243 members, one-third of the school-aged children in southern Jackson County. While current demand can spike attendance to 130 members on an early fall day, space limitations make serving an average of 80 members daily in a facility adequate for 50 challenging. It should come as no surprise that demand is so high; it was the need for affordable afterschool enrichment to assist working families that led a group of community leaders to found the BGCP, pulling from a nationally-proven curriculum. Full-time working parents lead most BGCP families, but 70% of BGCP families report a household income below $30,000 annually. While 62.6% of Jackson County students qualified for free and reduced lunch in 2019, 84% of BGCP members qualified. With little wiggle room in many family budgets for afterschool care, work schedules don’t always allow guardians to offer children extracurriculars with the ease allowed to families in suburban areas. Young and curious minds left without supervised and enriching activities are at risk of being exposed to harmful behaviors and delinquent activities. For working parents in southern Jackson County, the affordable daily afterschool programming and full-day summer programming provided by BCGP is life-changing.

Despite capacity challenges, BGCP is already producing measurable success. BGCP collects data as part of its mandatory reporting to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, including the number of students per grade level, number of hours of academic tutoring and time spent on physical activity. BGCP also participates in an annual survey the Boys & Girls Club of America conducts with Club members ages nine and older to determine the likelihood of positive outcomes in priority areas including academic success, good character and citizenship, and healthy lifestyles. BGCP regularly exceeds the national average in many categories. Having access to key resources from a national organization with over a century in youth development is paramount for BGCP. Gleaning from guidelines, management practices, programming and training means that staff and volunteers can spend more time implementing and less time inventing. Performance metrics show areas of quantitative concern. Qualitative guidelines offer actions derived from evidence-based research and drawing from academic studies pointing to best practices in youth development.

Youth development comes in various packages, from academic to emotional and physical, with a membership ranging from kindergarten through high school, BGCP programming is teaching critical skills at all ages. Early on, the decision to make healthy choices for ‘you’ and ‘your body’ is a strong foundational concept and can range from eating and an active lifestyle to academic studies and maintaining friendships. Reading through the list of BGCP targeted outcomes includes improved academics and communication skills, anti-bullying, civics, conflict resolution, coping skills for stress, exercise and a nutritious diet, literacy and respect for others and other cultures.

Later, when those more “MTV universe” decisions appear along a cloudy horizon, a foundation of self-worth, both personal and communal, provides more precise navigational tools. A small but thriving teen membership is expanding developmental programming to include counseling against alcohol and drug abuse. BGCP also partners with other organizations to utilize and amplify their areas of expertise, such as the Jackson County Department of Public Health. Additionally, parents can choose concerning which program topics best suit their family; advanced notice encourages previewed curriculums with an option to opt-out. MTV doesn’t own the only universe out there. Vocational forces occupy some universes that young minds could only begin to dream are at their potential fingertips. For this reason, the BGCP is charting a course beyond academic success and providing teens with hard skills for future employment, creating informal mentoring with college students to inspire members to strive for postsecondary goals and expose them to diverse careers and trades. BGCP partners with nonprofits throughout the plateau to magnify exposure to other industries and vocational exploration areas, for example, The Bascom: A Center for the Visual Arts, Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust and the Literacy Council of Cashiers.

Board and staff recognized the need for facilities to empower the current five full-time and thirty part-time employees plus their 93 volunteers to serve both existing and growing demand. They embarked on a plan to build a facility worthy of the Club's success and were initially planning a smaller expansion. By January of 2020, the idea to purchase a parcel of land near the center of Cashiers was conceived, which would allow for more ambitious construction and members to easily access partner organizations such as the Albert Carlton-Cashiers Community Library and The Village Green. BGCP supporters immediately rallied around the idea, and donor dollars purchased the property by the summer of 2020. Design is underway for construction on a nearly three-acre campus with plans for a main K-12 building, a recreational pavilion, playground and room for expansion down the road. Excruciating detail is going into all aspects of the building plans, which consider aesthetics, modern childcare safety measurements and inspiration birthed through COVID-19 pandemic necessities. During COVID-19, social distancing has slashed the already low facility capacity. New building plans now include pod classrooms, each equipped with a bathroom and sink. In current events, these pods help keep groups isolated for health reasons, but in future planning, these will allow for various classes and programming to happen simultaneously. In partnering with local restaurants and Vision Cashiers, the Cashiers Emergency Food Collaborative (CEFC) brought the Club's long-term desire to partner with local organizations that feed the community to fruition. It is partly because of CEFC that the Club decided to include a food pantry with drive-thru pick up.  To complete the Capital Campaign and Expansion Fund, the Club is enthusiastically nearing the finish line, with only $1.1 million in funding needed of the original $4.5 million identified in January of 2020; $500,000 would pay for the recreational pavilion. Annually, BGCP requires $600,000 to operate. With the new facility, this number will increase to around $785,000, primarily due to the cost of the increased staffing that will be needed to maintain meaningful relationships and experiences with BGCP's growing membership, like the addition of a part-time nurse. As the Club continues to close the gap in their fundraising efforts, they are excited to announce detailed construction plans in the future. As with all nonprofits, charitable donations come in both dollars and service. For those with a background in childcare, teaching, or a specific skill or hobby that would be of interest to young members and programming, BGCP is always looking for new volunteers to help serve their expanding numbers.

When talking about barometers for success in youth organizations, it is easy to get caught up in graduation benchmarks. Healthy and drug-free lifestyles, academic success and postsecondary education are undeniable in their importance and necessities. But success is also measured much later, a little closer to 80 than 18. BGCP is considering this in their quest to lay foundations that enable young people to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens. Later, success is found in fulfilling careers, a lifetime of enjoying a job with ample financial provision. Success also lies in meaningful and loving relationships and resilience to life’s struggles. It presents itself while offering your children the experiences you had hoped for them to enjoy. It identifies in caring for aging family members in a way you always believed you would and in using a lifetime of wisdom to help build a better tomorrow for a community you adore. Perhaps the most valid benchmark of success will never be witnessed by the BGCP. Instead, it will happen in a board room or town hall meeting on the plateau or in a neighboring universe wherever ‘there’ is- when a future leader aspires to build youth facilities like the Club where they grew up. A place to teach a new generation how to sail their one of a kind boats, just like they learned to do years before.