Charles Griffin, 28, smiles as he remembers his first encounter with Haley, now 18, and others whose lives he has reversed. Griff, as he is affectionately known, is the director of the new Downtown Porter Boys and Girls Club, 620 Lauderdale Street.
Situated between Booker T. Washington High School and the William A. Foote and Edward O. Cleaborn public housing projects, the club is in a prime location to reach potentially troubled kids. The club opened in February in the renovated Porter gymnasium. In its brief existence, it has already become the most utilized Boys and Girls Club in the city.
Marcus Ward, 17, has been involved with the organization since he was 5. His main reason for coming to the Downtown Porter club is the staff. "Since I've been coming here my whole personality has changed. The [staff] here has been a big influence in my life. They will help you in any situation," says Ward.
"We're just dangling carrots for them to come. Once relationships are established with the staff, the kids will come back no matter what the activity," says Griffin.
Bernal Smith, vice president and chief operating officer of the Memphis Boys and Girls Clubs, says the Porter location started as a "survival of the fittest" club. "Other agencies had started and stopped services and youth programs in the location, but none ever stayed," says Smith. "The Memphis Housing Authority [MHA] asked us to put a club here." With help from grants from the state of Tennessee and operating funds from MHA, the club already appears to be a success.
Each of the six Memphis-area clubs has its own board of directors. The Downtown Porter board, chaired by businessman Robert Williams, has big plans for the club and its members. Through collaboration with the Work Place, the club will offer training in computer proficiency, office skills, and job placement. The club's 20-station computer lab clearly demonstrates the community's support. Hardware and connectors were donated by Sysco; computers were donated by several individual firms; and Lan One Inc. provided and set up the software.
Early next year, Downtown Porter will kick off a national Boys and Girls Clubs computer pilot program. Members will be given personal computers for home use. Again, the computers will be donated and come complete with Internet service, also donated, for the 20 to 40 participants.
Several other programs are offered to members in an effort to fulfill the the club's mission to inspire and enable young people to reach their full potential. A Power Hour of homework help is set aside for younger members after school. The Job Ready program, for ages 15 and older, teaches job skills, resume preparation, and interview skills. After completing the program, club members are placed with partnering companies for on-the-job vocational training and employment. The Chef Club teaches etiquette and meal preparation; older club members who become part of the Keystone Club are taught the meaning of community by helping younger kids. And, of course, athletic facilities and activities are also provided.
Staff members don't take their responsibilities lightly. "Our job is not like other jobs," says Griffin. "If we mislead a child, terrible things could happen. They depend on us and sometimes we are all they've got." Almost 85 percent of the kids served come from single-parent homes, usually with no male in the household.
Downtown Porter staff member and former "club kid" Marcus Taylor believes in his job. "What these kids need is to see young African-American men making a positive move in this area. These kids are the future and if they don't see positive male role models now, by the time they grow up, it's too late. We try to instill in them that all black men are not bad."
And what about the girls? They have role models. "We make sure to provide workshops and programs just for the girls," says staffer Charlie Braswell. "We have individual sporting events for them. We want to make sure the girls don't get lost."
The Memphis Boys Club was started in 1962. The name was later changed to the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Memphis and now girls make up 40 percent of the members. The organization serves more than 6,000 kids. Individual club operating costs each year total more than $330,000, with a majority of the money coming from fund-raisers and individual donations. During the school year, Memphis-area clubs are open Tuesday through Friday from 2 to 9 p.m. and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. Membership is open to kids ages 7 to 17, who must be registered by a parent.