Back in the early ’70s, the Boys (No Girls) Club was where my older brother and I spent many of our Saturdays. It was a bus ride across town from our third-floor apartment on the West Side, where our mother was doing her best to raise three school-age boys and a toddler girl on her own.
We could throw basketballs around in the gym, practice archery in the basement and make gimp key chains in the arts and crafts room. During city parades, we marched and played drums along Elm Street, my brother tapping a snare with the Muchachos, me hitting a tenor with the Drum and Bugle Corps. The club offered a haven for a couple of kids who needed a place to release some energy and spend time with male role models. Back then, we just thought it was a fun place to hang out.
Even for alums like me, the club is one of Manchester’s best kept secrets. In the mid-’80s, the club’s moniker became the Boys & Girls Club of Manchester, and the services it provides began expanding to meet the Queen City’s growing need for programs that help children.
On Wednesday, the Boys & Girls Club was named a Champion in Action by Citizens Bank in partnership with the New Hampshire Union Leader. The award comes with $35,000 from the bank, media coverage from the Union Leader and volunteer support.
CEO Diane Fitzpatrick, who became the nonprofit’s first female chief executive four years ago, hopes the attention will help the club outgrow a reputation trapped in time. The Manchester Boys Club was incorporated in 1907 and became the Boys & Girls Club of Manchester in 1983.
“Being 112 years old is wonderful, but you have that image of what we were, and I really want to get that image out of who we are today and what our goals are for tomorrow,” Fitzpatrick said Thursday morning at her office on Union Street.
The Boys & Girls Club serves an average of 560 kids a day from grades one through 12, many from refugee and immigrant families. While recreational activities remain part of the club’s core, it serves kids breakfast, after-school snacks and dinner, helps them with their homework and works with the local school district to monitor their progress. The club is still a fun place to hang out, but increasingly it has found its mission to be much greater than that.
“What has changed? The need has changed. The level of poverty we’re facing in our city,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’ve now got to become that safe place.”
Seventy percent of children the club serves qualify for free or reduced-price lunch in city schools. In addition to meals, the club offers a pantry provided by Hannaford that lets kids choose food to take home. The goal is to provide a welcome environment where there is no shame in seeking help.
“When a child walks in here, when a family walks in here, they walk in proud. There’s no stigma. I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable to ask for help. I want it to feel like, ‘This is my home. These are my friends.’ You’re accepted here. We have a lot of bilingual staff,” Fitzpatrick said.
During my visit to the club on Thursday, members of Fitzpatrick’s leadership huddled for a weekly meeting, discussing outreach efforts to families and what follow-up might be needed.
“It’s all about relationships. We have two individual support directors that work with behavior, work with families, and are the connectors,” she said. “Those roles are so critical to this organization, but we need more of that. We need more of that in the community.”
Early in her tenure, Fitzpatrick met with Hal Jordan, who led Granite YMCA for more than 40 years before retiring in 2017. The meeting led to a collaboration between the two nonprofits on academic and enrichment programs. Such partnerships between nonprofit groups, the school district and government agencies can make better use of resources and meet ever-changing needs, she said.
“A child that is participating here at the Boys & Girls Club and then finds a mentor connected with the Y, and then is learning how to cook at MPAL and doing a Saturday night program at Salvation Army — we are a strong community. We’re there for kids,” Patrick said. “So that was our commitment to kind of shift the way we’re thinking about youth-serving agencies — and we all are interconnected.”