It takes a village
Carmen Waite has big plans leading the Boys &find Girls Club of the Plateau
by Denise K. James
Carmen Waite began working on her leadership prowess soon after earning her bachelor’s degree. With roles in manufacturing and shipping, which required “managing people much older than herself,” she gathered important skills that would serve her later as CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of the Plateau—namely, offering unwavering support and clear communication.
Prior to enrolling as an undergraduate at NC State, Waite decided that her ideal career—working with young adults—would need reevaluation: teachers were abundant at the time, and she wanted to secure a steady job upon graduation since she was paying for her education herself. She had picked up hand-weaving, “a meticulous and peaceful pastime,” she says, which inspired her to consider a career in textiles, but she kept her original dream simmering on the backburner.
“I told my husband and all my friends that after my retirement, I would love to work with kids again,” she says.
Fast-forward to when Waite did retire in 2017, and, true to her word, started volunteering with the Boys & Girls Club of the Plateau. When the CEO position opened up, the passionate volunteer immediately felt the role beckoning to her.
“They were looking for someone with a strong business background to serve as a steward of the club and to help with future growth and a vision of progress,” she says.
The Boys & Girls Club of the Plateau is a fairly young chapter of Boys & Girls Club of America (BGCA), originating in 2014 when the local community noticed a gaping absence in after-school care. Fueled by their need, the community started fundraising for this vision, and, according to Waite, the timing was ideal because nearby schools had lost funding for their own after-school programs.
Soon enough, the Boys & Girls Club of the Plateau was up and running, headquartered inside the community center. The new club grew swiftly throughout the next five years, and by 2020, plans emerged for a brand-new, bigger building, along with ardent fundraising efforts to make it happen. Ground broke in April 2021, and the new space is now open, much to Waite’s triumph—she accepted the role of CEO just two months prior.
“We’re all proud of the fact that from the time we broke ground to the move-in was just one year, especially in this crazy time of material shortages. It is a real credit to our board chair Nat Turner, and the level of community support” she notes. “The need had always been there, and it’s nice to have the space.”
But a shiny new building is far from Waite’s only point of pride as CEO — she has elevated the vision for the Club in numerous ways. The national BGCA prides itself on leading youth in three distinct areas: academic success; good character and citizenship; and healthy lifestyles — and Waite recognized the importance of offering more programs to address the three in engaging ways.
“Our number-one focus is to enable young people, especially those who need it most, to reach their potential and to be productive, caring and responsible citizens,” she says.
One of the first things implemented was participation in a special global competition called Odyssey of the Mind. The competition, originally called “Olympics of the Mind,” involves students from kindergarten through college and offers opportunities to “think outside of the box,” solve problems, speak publicly and more. Waite had coached her own children in Odyssey of the Mind and she was already an advocate for what it offered.
“I knew how great Odyssey of the Mind is and how it incorporates academics, problem-solving and performance,” she says. “It was not being offered at our public schools, and I felt it was something our youths would benefit from.”
North Carolina includes four regions that compete and in the last three years, members have placed in the regional competitions, and, more recently, made it all the way to state competitions.
Waite is pleased with other things the Club has recently implemented as well. A certified recreation therapist, Brandon Norwood, is helping the Club promote physical activity and wellness, as well as ensuring members have an opportunity to study recreation therapy (and participate in valuable internships through the club) at Western Carolina University.
“Our partnership with Western has really been great,” says Waite. “We want to provide recreation therapy internships to support both our members and our community. Before Brandon joined us, he worked among troubled youths, and he wants to be part of prevention. And I believe that’s what we’re doing here.”
Growing the club’s young adult membership is something Waite is passionate about. To increase the number of teen members, certain members are visiting local high schools to share how much the Boys & Girls of the Plateau has mattered to them. College prep, workforce prep and even a mentoring program are solid reasons for teens to participate. But it’s far from all serious; fun stuff like a special “teen week” like during the Fourth of July also attracts young adults.
“Typically, at a Boys & Girls Club, the members start young and stay at the club,” Waite explains. “But because we are a relatively new chapter and COVID hit shortly after, we are still working to grow our team. Our long-term goal is to build a teen center.”
So what’s a typical day for this busy CEO? Waite arrives at the facility around 8 a.m. and checks in with her staff “to see how things are going.” She often has meetings with members of the community or the generous donors who help make the club possible. Finally, a large part of her day is problem-solving and ensuring that safety is paramount on the club’s campus, which has become easier with the new facility since it was designed with safety in mind.
“A big part of my job is ensuring we are always providing the best quality programming and the best safety,” she says. “We’ve done a voluntary audit through the Boys & Girls Club of America; they brought in someone to establish our safety. We’ve also expanded our safety committees — medical professionals and rescue squad — to make safety part of our culture.”
Most of all, Waite is thankful that she is able to realize her early dreams of watching kids evolve into well-rounded people—and she acknowledges that it indeed takes a village of herself, her staff, the community and the members themselves, all working together toward these goals.
“I’ve finally found my passion. And I couldn’t do any of this without the support of our board and community,” she says. “It’s important to us that we have a strong staff-to-child ratio, and we want our community partners to be involved. The club does an annual survey in which the members give feedback, and we learned 100 percent of our members feel that they have a sense of belonging.”
To learn more about the Boys & Girls Club of The Plateau, visit www.bgcplateau.org.
CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of the Plateau
Hometown: Born in Aberdeen, Washington and spent her formative years in Redondo Beach, California before relocating for college.
Education: NC State
Family: Husband, Richard Jones, and two children, Christopher and Ryely
Hobbies: “There are two things I’m passionate about: hiking and board games. I am a board game geek. There are so many board games; they’re kind of like craft beers. With anyone who hates to play games, I can convert them. It’s a great way to connect socially. My favorite of all time is Splendor, and lately I’ve been playing Calico.”