By DANIELLE TEPPER
On a typical weekday afternoon, a visitor to the Boys & Girls Club in Red Bank might find a handful of kids keeping happily busy inside the modest building on Drs. James Parker Boulevard. This is their after-school hangout, where they play games, get homework help, and relax before their parents pick them up after work.
Many families in the borough depend on this program, especially in these hard economic times, to keep their kids off the streets and engage their minds. But the club, which took over the borough-owned building – formerly Bizarro’s bar – at the corner of Bridge Avenue just three years ago, is struggling, say club officials and supporters. They’re making the financial situation the focal point of the year’s programming plans.
“There are so many lucky people in Monmouth County with really comfortable lives, but others are far less fortunate,” said Nicole Corre, a borough resident who is raising money for the club through her participation in this year’s New York City Marathon. “So many kids get to spend their summers at beach clubs or nice sleep-away camps, but the small respite these kids have at the Boys & Girls Club is fading away. Where do they have to go?”
In the two-year period from 2011 through to the end of 2012, the club will have lost a total of $250,000 in funding, some from vanishing grants and some from cancelled fundraisers, officials said. The club’s annual 10-week summer camp was the first program to take a hit.
“As we were mapping our financial status, we realized the camp just wasn’t feasible,” said Douglas Eagles, executive director of the Monmouth County branch. “We had to pare it down without overburdening parents.” The camp was cut three weeks short, a first in the past three years of operation.
The club charges fees, but not nearly enough to keep the place going, said Eagles. “This is a money-losing business,” he said. “We’re non-profit, so we rely on donors and grants in order to provide high quality services at the lowest possible fee.”
After making it through the summer, the club restructured in an effort to stay afloat.
“We know we’re not unique in the sense that other non-profits are facing the same economic trends,” said Eagles. “Given that reality, it’s the question of, ‘How can we continue to provide those services and programs that we know these kids need, but to do it in a way that is sustainable, so that we make sure that future kids that will need us can continue to come to this club?’”
Officials put a development plan in motion for 2013 that includes fundraising strategies such as hosting one event per month, double the number of last year, which will emphasize the strength of their programming to the community.
“Hopefully that will bring donors through the door so they can experience first-hand the impact of what we’re doing in terms of affecting change in the lives of these kids,” Eagles said. “We hope to raise the profile of the club so that people are inspired to get behind us financially.”
Meanwhile, the club is aggressively pursuing grants at the federal, state, and county levels. But with public money less available than in previous years, the club and its administrators are reaching out to community members in a way that begs the question, What if these were your children?
“The most important thing to recognize about who we are and what we do is that we offer a level of services that create opportunities for kids who weren’t exposed to the level of opportunities that you or I were exposed to growing up,” Eagles explained. The club not only offers books, games, crafts, snacks, and TVs, it also provides a College Bound program for older kids as well as Career Launch, to get kids to contemplate their futures.
The club is focused on fostering a positive relationship with businesses and cultural venues in town as well. Two River Theater has already had an influence: “We took the kids to see a play once. For some of them, it was their first time. I had a young lady who cried because she said she’d never had so much fun in her life,” said Christy Crank, director of the Red Bank unit. “We want the community to welcome these kids and support them.”
The staff at the B&GC is also determined to “dismantle the image of the East vs. the West Side of Red Bank,” said Eagles. “There’s a wealth of knowledge in this town, and we think showing them what we do will help people want to come alongside these kids and both sides would benefit from it. It would elevate the community.”
In spite of the time constraints, summer camp still had its impact this year. After it closed, Crank said she received more than 15 voicemails from kids thanking her. “I’m a mush, so I cried,” she laughed. “They said they’d miss me and that they couldn’t wait for next summer, and I was just so overwhelmed. Those are the things that help you know that you are making a difference. I have two kids of my own, but these are my kids too. This is who I am. This is my time to give back.”
Added Eagles, “The heart and soul of all our programs are the staff and volunteers that develop relationships with the kids. I have a strong passion for kids who are underserved. I believe they’re better off as a result of the connections we make. That’s what makes it worth the headache and keeps me coming back.”