We arrived for our tour of the Brighton, Colorado branch of the Boys and Girls Club as the sun was starting to set on the day. It had been another bone-chilling one, with temperatures in the negatives, and I’d barely slept the night before, so I thought, “We’ll make this quick.”
We entered and found ourselves in an ante-room, with a ceiling at least two stories high. A movie-sized poster of Desmond Tutu, with the quotation: “His moral compass points to equality” hung high above our heads. As we pushed open the inner door, I was stunned by the wave of cacophonous sound that hit us full on. It was the sound of children -hundreds of them. And they were everywhere: clustered in groups, intent on pool, foosball, ping-pong, and air hockey; leaning against large columns, chatting away; weaving their way through the tables, heading somewhere with a purpose. There were also about a dozen kids directly in front of us crowding around a desk, apparently checking in. The walls were covered with posters, some commercially done, but many in kid scrawl, and to our right were banks of cubbies stuffed with about a zillion coats, hats, scarves and mittens, with more piled high on top. The whole place, in all its busy, throbbing, jumble of young life woke me up and made me smile.
Just then appeared Dan Ruybal, Brighton Club director, and Kathy Luna, COO for all Denver Metro Clubs, who would give us our tour. Kathy reviewed some Club history, which had its beginnings in 1860 when a few Hartford women started a place for street boys, and then explained that now about 60% of Brighton’s some 300 members are at the national poverty level, with the rest coming from middle-income families. In the ocean of faces, I saw a mix of black, Hispanic, and white, girls and boys, with most of them standing between my waist and chest in height. And in that mix, I saw our future: one where race and gender are no longer the boundaries of society and the qualities of the human being define us. And those qualities adorn the Club walls: integrity, pride, safety, imagination, kindness.
Dan explained that each child is signed up by a parent for a $2 membership fee and then given a lanyard with ID card attached. The card is laminated construction paper, with the child’s information handwritten on one side and a bar code on the back. I was amazed to learn that the Club stays open until 9:00 each night. A small café stocked by the local Food Bank is run by kids who serve dinner to each other, with others mopping up afterward. I wondered how many kids stayed until closing, and how often…and was it their choice? At the same time, I felt deep gratitude that there is a place like this where kids can find community and a good meal.
We visited the study room, where homework, reading and the “Think Like a Genius” workshop were taking place. Next door is the technology lab where about 25 computer stations are set up, about half in use. One young woman, who when hunched over a few of her charges I mistook for one of them, was introduced as the computer teacher. She explained that they organize their sessions like sports seasons, with “Techs-perts” currently in progress. Kids learn the basics of the MS Office suite and demonstrate their ability in contests. There’s a lot of competition and recognition at the Club, with beaming winners’ faces and charts of progress posted everywhere.
The art room was similar, with another young woman leading a group in making wire sculptures. When I asked if the all-girl group was typical, she said no, it was just that today’s project involved hosiery, which the boys didn’t want to touch. There’s a recording studio, the biggest gymnasium I’ve ever seen (filled with scores more kids in the midst of dodge ball), outdoor space including sports fields, play areas with swings and jungle gyms, and even a garden. I thought, fascinated, that these children have more opportunities at their finger tips than I had as a child.
From the gym, we headed toward a door with “Teen Center: You Must Be 13 to Enter” on it. Decorated like a fun pizza parlor, the Teen Center has its share of game tables, wall art, banners and computer stations. As we entered, a blond boy of about seven nearly ran into us. Dan asked what he was doing in there, to which the boy quickly replied: “I’m a bud!” The Teen Center Director explained that they’d recently started a mentoring program (Budz), pairing a teen with a “junior” (as the younger kids are called). I asked if they’d had to pressure the teens into it, and she said it had been a bit rocky at first, but now the teens really enjoyed their buddies, taking pride in helping them with homework and projects. As if in testament, a high school girl patiently listened as a younger girl read aloud at a nearby table. The sight of these surrogate siblings, sitting so serenely in the midst of this place, a place that seems to have something for everyone, even for those without all the blessings of a natal family, brought tears to my eyes.
As our tour came to an end, I wished there was more to see – and we’d been there nearly two hours. I’d fallen in love with the place, with its aliveness, its generosity, its breadth, its humanity. And the fact that interested me most was the number of staff who had been with the Clubs more than 20 years, some even into their third decade. Dan started as a Club member when he was a boy and was in his 28th year working there; Kathy was in her 22nd. How many places have that kind of loyalty?
It occurs to me that the loyalty is to a place that nurtures the human soul’s self-expression, and in particular, that of children, where it seems closest to the surface. There just isn’t anything more joyous, more intoxicating than that, now is there? I can’t wait to go back.
For more information about the Boys and Girls Clubs and the important work they do, visit their website.