There are institutions in most every community that become ingrained in the day-to-day existence to the point that they become, if not invisible, at the very least, translucent. We know they are there, but we look through or past them because they go about their business without a lot of fanfare and they are good at what they do, so there is little to fuss about.
Such is the case with the Boys & Girls Clubs of West Central Missouri and the outstanding work it does to provide local youth with a safe haven before and after school. But the club does so much more than give kids a place to hang out while Mom and Dad are at work.
That message was fully on display Thursday evening, as the club named its Teen Youth of the Year and Elementary Youth of the Year at the Fox Theater Events Center in downtown Sedalia. Each of the finalists read an essay or provided a speech about what the club means to them. While the theme of having an opportunity to complete homework during Power Hour was constant throughout the evening, there were other, deeper themes in these students’ words. It became clear that their bond with the club is strong, because the impact the club and its mission has on these kids is meaningful.
Max Brown, 9, a third-grader at Skyline Elementary School in Sedalia, opened his remarks by saying the club provides him with “a familylike atmosphere. This is a place where I could be myself and where I could get support from staff members.”
Hannah Estes, 9, said of the club: “I feel like this is where I need to be.” The Skyline Elementary fourth-grader has set the bar high for herself, as she aspires to become a doctor, veterinarian or zoo keeper.
La Monte Elementary School third- grader Tanner Martin, 8, said the club “gives us a safe place to be with our friends and not worry about strangers.”
Alex Esquivel, 11, who was named Elementary Youth of the Year in 2010, said the club is “an important part of my life.” The Sedalia Middle School fifth-grader added, “I know when the bell rings at the end of the day, I will be going to a safe place where I can learn new things and have fun.”
But for me, the most moving address was by Alexis McNeal, a 16-year-old sophomore at Smithton High School. When she started going to the club just two years ago, she was reluctant to join in any activities and kept everyone at arm’s length, “I sat at a table by myself, thinking, ‘Why is my mom making me come to this?’ ” she said.
But as her eyes were opened to how much fun everyone else was having, Alexis opened up as well. “The club gave me a sense of freedom and accomplishment,” she said. “I finally felt I could be myself and not be judged.”
At the end of the evening, Boys & Girls Clubs Executive Director Brett Barth-Fagan was beaming. He was rightly proud that the club’s kids “are getting something out of this. ... We are having an impact on them.”
He also predicted that, like club alumnus Donal Buckner, who now is as the Skyline site director, at least one of the 15 Youth of the Year finalists will come back to work for the club.
“With some of these kids, we are altering their path,” Barth-Fagan said, adding that the club provides youth with “hope and opportunity.”
That sentiment was clear in the words of Madison Fisher, 13, the Cole Camp Middle School seventh-grader who was named runner-up in the elementary group. Her essay closed:
“Boys and Girls Club is more than just an influence on me. It is a fire of inspiration, and I hope to keep that flame burning brightly.”