Boys and Girls Clubs, dealing with stereotypes and challenges

Story and slideshow by COLLIN McLACHLAN

Take a look at the Lied Boys and Girls Club

“Is it this one teacher?”

“No, not that one. Can you find it? Does anybody know what the answer is?”

“Is it this one?”

“Yep, that’s it. Good job, José. It’s true that most kids are not drug users.”

If this sounds like the dialogue of a normal classroom, that’s because it is. The students in this classroom are trying to answer a question from the teacher by finding the answer card that has been hidden in the room.

This typical classroom situation was one that happened at the Lied Boys and Girls Club, which is located deep in the west side of Salt Lake City. People who have stereotypes about this area might like to learn that the kids who were part of this conversation were all Latino or African American. These kids face challenges in their life, just like everybody else. Some are not unusual, while others are totally unique to their generation and circumstance. That’s what the Boys and Girls Club tries to help with.

The Boys and Girls Club of America is a non profit organization that provides after-school activities for children and teens. Founded in 1860, the B&GC of America is devoted to being “a safe place to learn and grow – all while having fun. It is the place where great futures are started each and everyday.”

According to the club’s mission statement, the organization aims to provide its members with “a safe place to learn and grow, ongoing relationships with caring adult professionals, life enhancing programs and character development experiences.”

The B&GC of America is a national organization with branches all over the country. There are two B&GC houses on the west side of Salt Lake, the Lied and the Capitol West. Like all B&GCs, the Lied Club, which is located at 460 S. Concord St. (1235 West), works with kids ages 6 – 18. The kids are divided into two age groups: the Juniors – who range from 6 – 12, and the Teens – who range from 12 – 18.

For the first hour or so kids get to “decompress” by just playing games and hanging out. Most clubs have pool tables, ping-pong tables, full gym and a food court. The club then tries to feed the students a meal every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, with small snacks given out every day. Staff and volunteers will then do an activity with small groups of kids that is centered on learning.

A lot of kids attend the B&GC’s for many reasons. “I like that they help me with my homework and stuff,” said Casandra Darca, 14, in an interview. She has been attending the B&GCs since she was in third grade. “I get to have fun with my friends.”

Darca, like many members at the B&GC, comes from an underprivileged home. Her parents aren’t home during after-school hours so she has nowhere else to go. Her mom signed her up for the club because she used to be a member when she was little. “She liked it when she went here, so she wanted me to try it out,” Darca said.

Many Utah residents often have a stereotype about people on the west side of Salt Lake City. Lied Boys and Girls Club Director Tiffany Harris, 30, in an interview said that some people even start to form stereotypes about the kids she works with. “I’ve encountered a few people, thankfully not many, that will assume that all these kids are bad,” Harris said. “There’re not bad, they’re just kids.”

The kids themselves aren’t bad, but the situation they’re in might be. According to the Utah Refugee Coalition, the state is home to more than 25,000 refugees who come from all over the world.  A lot of refugee housing is located on the west side, so the B&GC works with a lot of refugee children.

Harris says that some of the challenges that these kids face really are unique. “I think there’s a stereotype that assumes that since they’re a refugee, that they’re all suffering from PTSD. That they’re all victims.” She states how sometimes a refugee’s current circumstance is what’s hard, not just their past. “Just coming to a new culture and trying to adapt and acculturate, that takes a lot of internal strength and courage, both from the parents and from the kids,” Harris said.

This does not mean, however, that what lays in these kids’ past aren’t causing problems for them. “We’ve had kids that have drawn pictures of men with AK-47s, and people who have their arms cut off by machetes, because they’ve seen that. They’ve had family members that have been killed,” Harris said.

Harris points out that many B&GC’s are intentionally placed in underprivileged neighborhoods to help improve those communities. She also says that they don’t discriminate against anybody coming. “If you can get here, you’re welcome to come,” Harris said.

It’s this underprivileged circumstance that a lot of B&GC kids are in that can cause more problems. “They’re expecting and wanting cell phones at a young age, because that’s what’s out there,” Harris said.

Kelly Gudall, 18, a volunteer at the Lied Boys and Girls Club, feels that having technology can also be a problem. “I feel like a challenge for them is just going outside,” Gudall said. “I mean they do, but I feel like it’s not as their first choice.”

Society’s increasing dependence on technology, and these kids’ inability to use or purchase technology, causes a very unique challenge for them that has not been seen in previous generations. “In school, they might be required to do some Internet research or type something up,” Harris said. “They don’t have a computer at home, and it can be difficult to find transportation to the library.” Harris points out that these kids have to wait for mom or dad to get home and take them before the library closes at 9 p.m. “That is a challenge that I never had to deal with when I was a child,” Harris said.

Despite helping its kids overcome all these challenges, the B&GC is making a substantial difference in children’s lives. A focus for the club is building relationships with the kids. Gudall says that this is one of her favorite parts of volunteering. She explains that like any classroom there are shy kids and outgoing kids. What she tries to do is get the shy kids to open up to her. “It feels like an accomplishment when a kid warms up to you,” Gudall said. “I like that.”

Harris told a story of a girl who had once shared a secret with her. Her secret was that someone had been hurting her. The club was able to take the appropriate action to help this girl. Harris realizes that it was the relationship between the staff and this girl that allowed her to open up and tell someone. “Right then I felt as though we’re doing what we need to,” Harris said.

The kids at the B&GC have a great way of changing people’s stereotypes, not only about them, but about the west side of Salt Lake itself. When Gudall first started volunteering, she said that she had an expectation of what it was going to be like. “I hate to say, but it was the stereotypical thing. But after the first time I came down here, it was so much fun.”

Gudall also says that her expectation of the west side of Salt Lake has changed. “They all seem really, really nice and really friendly. I’m not scared to come down here at all,” Gudall said.