You might be aware of the Boys and Girls Club as a place for kids to go after school, but if you’re anything like I was, you might also have some misconceptions. I assumed it was a program for disadvantaged youth, a supervised hangout for kids with nowhere else to go. But a meeting with Heather Powell, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Whatcom County, taught me that it’s so much more than that.

“The Clubs are accessible to every kid,” says Powell. “Everyone is welcome, regardless of income.”

And it’s not just a hangout—the Clubs offer activities with purpose, and with an outcome. The kids select from different programs, and those programs have objectives, like building skills for use in the outside world. “There’s always a plan,” Powell explains.

Kids at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Whatcom County develop a real relationship to their food and learn they can make choices about what and how they eat. Photo courtesy: Boys & Girls Clubs of Whatcom County

A youngster is eligible as soon as they’ve attended their first day of first grade, and are welcome through their last day of high school. Rather than setting arbitrary age limits, this insures that all school-age youth are able to take part.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that they offer athletics—including basketball, volleyball, baseball and more—but I learned that they also offer tutoring, programs focusing on science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM), and summer learning programs designed to prevent the “brain drain” kids might experience during vacation.

A Club member hard at work and fully engrossed in play. Photo courtesy: Boys & Girls Clubs of Whatcom County

Outside of sports and academics, their mission looks to develop the character and citizenship of the kids they serve. For example, the Premier Program selects a Youth of the Year from area high school students. By working through a set of commitments that range from community service to writing a series of essays, kids can progress through the local, state and regional levels, and ultimately to Washington DC, where a national spokesperson is selected.

As she looked at the amount of work that goes into participating in the Youth of the Year program, Powell once asked a 16-year-old girl, “Why do all of this?” She could not have received a better answer: “I’m not a great student or athlete. In my school, that’s what people are recognized for. My opportunity to be recognized comes from the Boys and Girls Club, from this program.”

One of the Club’s goals is to help kids be happy and healthy at the same time. Photo courtesy: Boys & Girls Clubs of Whatcom County

There are also, of course, those that need help at a much more basic level. One third grader was homeless, sometimes sleeping in a car with his mother. When he arrived at the club, they discovered he loved to play “Cat’s Cradle,” an activity that involves making intricate patterns out of string by weaving it around the fingers. “So we gave him a backpack [in which to store his string]. And every day at the Club he’d check on his backpack and be so excited to see it still there. It gave him stability and somewhere for his things, even if it was just some string.”

There’s never a shortage of goal-oriented activities going on in the Clubhouses. Photo courtesy: Boys & Girls Clubs of Whatcom County

When Powell arrived at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Whatcom County six years ago, she saw that kids were eating pizza, hot dogs and chicken nuggets. While it’s certainly not hard to get youngsters to eat these things, she knew there was room for improvement. “The kids were not actually starving, but they were nutritionally starving,” she says. “We can do better, and the kids deserve better.”

A nutritional coordinator was brought in, and changes began. There was resistance at first, but now there are kids in the kitchen developing a real relationship to their food and learning they can make choices about what and how they eat.

Learning, choices and empowerment are what it’s all about, says Powell. “The Club doesn’t have one cookie-cutter path for all the kids. We’re walking beside them, making sure they’re on a path that allows them to be successful members of this community. We’re putting kids on the path to their Great Future.”

Staff from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Whatcom County attend the recent gala, their largest event of the year. Photo courtesy: Boys & Girls Clubs of Whatcom County

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Whatcom County are fortunate to have great help in this endeavor. “Sponsorship makes events possible,” says Powell, “and every dollar an individual contributes is able to go toward programs.” Local appliance store DeWaard & Bode makes a point of including them in their philanthropy.

“DeWaard & Bode has been a long-time supporter of the Boys and Girls Club,” says Marketing Director Jake Bassett. “We really value the work their organization does for so many children and families in our community. We’re always happy when we can make a contribution to an organization making such positive impacts.”

In addition to sponsoring events, DeWaard & Bode also donates large household appliances for the Club’s fundraising auctions.

The auction is part of the Club’s single biggest event every year, a gala that also features dinner and a live band for dancing. This year’s gala was a huge success, bringing in a record-setting $438,000, which translates into two months of operation. While grants go a long way toward funding their programs, Powell explains that “granters don’t exactly line up to pay your electric bill. But unrestricted gifts are a great validation of the work we do, and allow us to hire quality staff.”

That’s why they love to see the community come forward with support—each gift they receive helps them get another student a little further along the path toward their greatest possible future.

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