22 years later, Antonio Feliciano proud to be member of this club
MANCHESTER — Antonio Feliciano was a 13-year-old boy looking for a place to play basketball after school when he found the Boys and Girls Club of Manchester and joined the team.
The rest is history, says Feliciano, who 22 years later is now director of all the club's programs at its main Union Street site.
"I feel I'm lucky to have the Boys and Girls Club in my life because I think they really saved my life," said Feliciano. "I had friends I hung around with in high school who have been in jail or in trouble. I was very fortunate because I stuck to the program.
Feliciano was 9 years old when his family arrived in Manchester from Puerto Rico, where he was born. His father, who had been in the U.S. Army stationed in North Carolina, was the only one who spoke some English.
It was a difficult transition for the young boy who was used to a small rural town and had never seen such large buildings. Classrooms, he explained, consisted of individual small buildings, nowhere near the size of Highland Goff's Falls School, where he attended his first bilingual classes.
Not being able to speak English and trying to adjust to American culture also proved difficult, but within two years Feliciano was fluent in English.
When he was in middle school, he joined the basketball team and by 1997 the then-sophomore at Manchester Central High School was a part-time employee of the club, working, playing and supervising the younger teens. He was the club's first bilingual employee, becoming a mentor and role model for the younger children, particularly for culturally diverse kids, and establishing an excellent rapport with parents and members of the Hispanic community, according to Gary Frost, the club's executive director who nominated him for this year's 40 Under Forty class.
It was the club staff, Feliciano said, who encouraged him to go on to college, something no one had done in his family. He said Hispanic families, at least at that time, expected children to graduate from high school and then go get a job or enter the military.
Feliciano obtained an associate degree in human services from Hesser College. Upon graduation, he became the club's first full-time bilingual employee assigned as its outreach director, approaching kids hanging out on the streets and in city parks nudging them to join the club.
Today, the club has three sites — after school programs located at the Jewett Street and Highland Goff's Falls schools and the main headquarters at Union Street. About 500 kids show up at the Union Street club each day during the winter, he said, and most of them are Hispanic, which is why now he is one of three full-time, bilingual staff members.