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New Boys and Girls Club opens in downtown Memphis


Marcus Haley was up to no good. With bad grades and an even worse attitude, he was headed for destruction. “I took school as a joke,” says Haley. “I almost flunked out of ninth grade. If it hadn’t been for Griff, I’d probably be in jail right now.” Griff, or Charles Griffin, 28, smiles as he remembers his first encounter with Haley, now 18, and others whose lives he has helped change. Griff, as he is affectionately known, is the director of the new Downtown Porter Boys and Girls Club at 620 Lauderdale. Situated between Booker T. Washington High School and the public housing residences of William A. Foote and Edward O. Cleaborn Homes, the Downtown Porter club is in a prime location to serve more than 150 kids each day. The club was opened just eight months ago in the second week of February in the renovated Porter gymnasium. In its short existence, it has already become the most popular club in the city. Marcus Ward, 17, is a longtime club member, having been involved with the organization since he was 5 years old. 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 clubs, says the Downtown 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. The Memphis Housing Authority [MHA] asked us to put a club here,” says Smith. With grants from the State of Tennessee and the MHA for operating funds, the club has been a success. Each of the six clubs in the Memphis area has its own board of directors. The Downtown Porter board, chaired by businessman Robert Williams, has big plans for the club and its members. With a focus on computer training and job placement programs, the club, through a collaborative effort with the Work Place, will offer computer proficiency and skills training, office skills, work effectiveness, and job placement. The club’s 20-station computer lab clearly demonstrates the community support of the Boys and Girls Club. Hardware and connectors were donated by Sysco, computers were donated by several individual firms, and Lan One Inc. provided and set up software. Early next year, Downtown Porter will kick off a national Boys and Girls Clubs computer pilot program. Members will be given their own personal computers for home use. Again, the computers will be donated and come complete with Internet service for the 20 to 40 participants. In addition to the computer programs at the Downtown Porter club, several other programs are offered to members in efforts to fulfill the mission of inspiring and enabling all young people to reach their full potential. A Power Hour of homework help is set aside for younger members to help them in all subjects. The Job Ready program, for ages 15 and up, teaches job skills, resume preparation, and interview skills. From here they are placed with partnering companies for on-the-job vocational training and employment. A Chef Club teaches etiquette and meal preparation. Older club members are taught the meaning of community by helping younger kids in the Keystone Club. And, of course, athletic activities abound. Working with children can be challenging and staff members do not take their responsibilities for granted. “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. Because of this, 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 too are provided with role models, including program director Charley Braswell, who talk to them about their own issues and lifestyles. “We make sure to provide workshops and programs just for the girls. We also have individual sporting events for them. We want to make sure the girls don’t get lost,” says Braswell. (Full-time, paid staff members of all Boys and Girls Clubs must be out of high school and pursuing higher education and must have taken professional training.) Memphis Boys Club started in 1962 and changed its name to Boys and Girls Club of Greater Memphis to incorporate girls, who make up 40 percent of the membership in area clubs. The organization currently serves more than 6,000 kids. Individual club-operating costs each year total more than $330,000, with a majority of funds coming from fund-raisers and individual donations. During the school year, Memphis clubs are open Tuesday through Friday from 2 to 9 p.m., 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. Membership is open to boys and girls ages 7 to 17, but they must be registered by a parent. The Downtown Porter club held its grand opening Tuesday, September 11th. Family Day will be held Saturday, September 15th, at the club, with guest appearances by Congressman Harold Ford Jr. and other government officials.

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