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Boys' clubs teach more than athletics

Bill Cosby knows about Boys' Clubs. So do Joe DiMaggio, Neil Diamond, former Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, O. J. Simpson, and Sylvester Stallone. They are all alumni of the organization now serving over a million youngsters.

Most people thinkm they know about Boys' Clubs. They picture boys swimming or playing basketball. They may know of the annual "Boy of the Year" award. They are sure the clubs are doing good things for boys (they are) and think Boys' Clubs are maybe connected with Boy Scouts or the YMCA (they aren't). In fact, considering that Boys' Clubs of America has been around for 75 years, it is still remarkably misunderstood.

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The organization hopes its new identity program and its new "connecting for unity" logo of two hands joining together will change that. It is also hiring staff with managerial, marketing, and communication skills, and engaging in long range organizational planning. And as any boys' Club member Knows, for a long time it has been doing much more than supervising would be athletes.

In Boston, where racial tensions have been heightened by a longstanding school busing controversy, the Boys' Clubs in pre- dominantly black Roxbury and predominantly white Charlestown and South Boston are working to lessen hostilities. Youngsters from all three clubs have taken trips together to Maine , New Hampshire, and western Massachusetts.

"We're not into the battlefield, namely Roxbury-South Boston-Charlestown, so we cannot claim success," says the executive vice-president of the Boys' Clubs of Boston, Frederick Davis. "But right within the confines of the city at local aquariums and museum who've opened their doors to us we bring black and white kids together, and it works out beautifully."

In Waco, Texas, a Juvenile Justice Project identified sources of trouble such as child abuse and youth gangs. In addition to counseling, it showed members what life in prison was like, and worked with them to avoid it. The result was a juvenile arrest rate drop of 23.5 percent over two years.

While the national organization's primary focus is on services for boys aged 6 to 18, many Boys' Clubs welcome girls into their ranks, too. Basketball or swimming may be what lures a youngster into a Boys' Club, but sports is a small part of Boys' Club activities. Current programs include arts and crafts, tutoring in reading and math, and even alcohol and drug abuse programs.

Andy and his brother Jerome, who attend one of Boston's Boy's Clubs, test the range. Andy is a star of the basketball team and Jerome is learning to cook. He's not alone. Cooking, says Mr. Davis, is one of the local group's strongest programs.

Joan Licursi of Boys' Clubs of America, the national parent organization, mentions jobs programs, guidance programs, the availability of hot meals in some clubs, even dental clinics. "Basically it's seeing the young person where he is and providing needed programs," she says. BCA provides standards for operations and core programs, but each club has a great deal of autonomy in designing programs needed by its community.

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While Boys' Clubs are often lumped together with Boy Scouts or the YMCA, there are big differences between the organizations, says Mr. Davis. Scouting, for instance, depends heavily on volunteers to run programs, and revolves around weekly meetings that may run for two hours and are held in a home or community center. The Y tends to be a more multidimensional organization, offering family services including such things as jogging for overweight executives and ceramics for suburban housewives.

Boys' Clubs, on the other hand, combine a focus on youth with a building, like the Y, to give identity. They also use paid youth workers instead of volunteers.

"[Most of] the clubs are in urban settings, dealing with minorities, with the underclass, the poor, dealing with children in public housing, with single-parent families," Mr. Davis says. They offer daily programs, usually from 3 to 10 p.m., and in some cases are almost second homes of inner-city kids.

"We're working with kids in an urban area, many of whom by virtue of environment or circumstances do not have a very high sense of self-esteem," Mr. Davis says. "They have a limited concept about their own personal growth, their opportunity to succeed. A lot of these kids view the world and themselves and their opportunities in a terribly negative away. Many of them are inarticulate, and if anyone asked them what they're hoping to get out of life the answer would be depressing. Our job is to intervene with programs that make children feel that they do have a chance to continue their education, for examle -- to become constructive rather than destructive.

"One level of programs attracts children, then the other level works with character development, with some of the basic values, such as sense of fair play , the importance of working as a teammate," he says.

There are also opportunities to talk about their own problems, he says, adding: "That in the long run, is what we're involved in, development of the whole child -- character development as opposed to athletic prowess."

A key factor in a club's success, Mr. Davis says, is staff. Often he runs into someone who participated in Boys' Club activities as many as 40 years ago. Inevitably they bring up the name of a staff member who made an impression on them -- a hero they've remembered ever since.

"One of my jobs is to hire people who will become exemplary, and through their contact will actually motivable these kids to aspire to great heights."

Many communities see their Boys' Club as a local institution and an integral part of the community. And while venerable institutions seemed to fall out of favor in the turbulent '60s and '70s, the decades of good work are bearing fruit now when competency and good results are prized. For Boy's Clubs, dependent on private, corporate, and foundation contributions as well as funding from the United Way, that reputation is priceless.

"Boys' Clubs have generally been a functioning, surviving, well-managed organization," Mr. Davis says. "During the '60s and '70s you wouldn't admit you were venerable. Also, society did not value competency. People would say, 'Well you may be competent, but you're not with it." But now I think venerability and competency are coming back in our society. In a way the pendulum is swinging back. When it comes to Boys' Clubs, you can say, 'They've been around.' There are generations of kids who are now leaders who went through the system.

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