Boys and Girls Clubs a powerhouse of summer activities in Harlingen

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HARLINGEN — They crowd around a table for fresh watermelon on a hot June afternoon.

Superman crouches, ready to strike.

Children line up to customize their own ice cream sundaes with M&Ms and cookie crumbs.

And there’s a dance, with 30 girls clapping, twirling, spinning in celebration of life and National Boys and Girls Club Week.

“Monday, we started off with Hawaiian Luau Day,” says Alma Dones, director of the Main Unit of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Harlingen at 1209 W. Washington.

“Kids were dressing up,” she says. “We had watermelon and snow cones as extra treats for them.”

It’s Tuesday now.

“Today was Princes and Superheroes Day,” she continues. “And also, tomorrow we have the Sundae Fun Day Ice Cream Social. They create their own sundaes. On Thursday, we have our dance performance.”

Dones at the moment is at the LeMoyne Gardens Unit of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Harlingen. Unit directors and staff members from all five Harlingen sites move continuously throughout the network of clubs to maintain a persistent flow and fluctuation of STEM activities, basketball games, face paintings and free lunches.

As if in reflection of the continuous changing of the children, their needs and their inclinations moment by moment, the movements between the club sites – which also include the Wilson, Bonita Park and Lamar units – change like the patterns of a kaleidoscope, shifting of a shell game or a jazz band’s improv. The energy of the children and the excitement of the staff provides an endless amount of power like an organic perpetual motion machine.

Here at the LeMoyne Gardens Unit, where Dones has stopped in to coordinate efforts with Director Hilda Gathright, there’s the squeaking of rubber soles, the crashing, exploding and the “clang-clang-clang” of a Fortnite competition in the game room. The clatter and rumble of billiard balls fired into the holes of the pool table seems somehow in perfect harmony with the cumbia music, if that makes any kind of sense, as the cacophony of sound and sense is itself a dynamic rhythm.

Kids at the LeMoyne Gardens Unit of the Boys and Girls Club of Harlingen use a variety of digital devices for a range of online activities in August 2022. (Travis Whitehead | Valley Morning Star)

Meanwhile, Gathright is now painting butterflies on the arm and hand of a young girl named Victoria who once asked regarding queen butterflies, “When the queens have babies, do they have princesses?”

Kids say the darndest things, as Art Linkletter declared so many times.

Two small boys finish their milks as they leave with their fathers, and they walk past the large butterfly garden, where the kids have planted an urban habitat and learned about life science.

Victoria with the butterflies on her hands has been a part of the effort for quite some time, and she’s now a part of the Triple L Club, a summer program whose name stands for LeMoyne Living Laboratory, a befitting title for the habitat Victoria and her friends have created.

And they’ve done such a fabulous job that Susan Upton, Cheryl Brummett and Alicia Cavazos from the Rio Grande Valley Pollinator Project have taken an interest in the kids and their living laboratory, and they come by now during the summer months to engage the kids in garden related activities, even taking it indoors while the scorching heat dominates the landscape.

Dones speaks with excitement, direction and focus of all the programs at the clubs throughout the year as well as the special week of observance. The clubs in Harlingen have kicked off the summer with a basketball camp, which attracted more than 100 campers. And then there was the soccer clinic and the volleyball camp, among many other summer programs.

“The programs for our kids are important because, number one, it keeps them busy and occupied throughout the summer,” Dones says. “Number two, it gives each one an opportunity to engage and have fun with others while at the club.”

The young dancers at the Main Unit confirm the latter motive as their own. Mikah Wolf, 8, herself somehow powered by an electrical energy which animates her every move, speaks well and immediate her first joy of the club.

“I am enjoying it because I get to spend time with friends and learn new moves,” she says before delivering a fine performance with her dance troupe.

“I really enjoy it because I get to spend time with all my friends,” says the young dancer Madison Terry, 8.

And the parents in the bleachers delight in watching their young debutantes move with a musical dexterity and agility through their complex choreography.

“She did really great, she gave it her all, she loves dancing,” says Mikah’s mother, Erika Wolf.

The dance camp and the basketball have given Tatianna De Jesus a way to stay active and keep her vitality strong through the summer months; her mother Mtisha De Jesus loves seeing her girl so well engaged.

“Oh, I love it,” De Jesus says. “It gets them out of the house, keeps them entertained. Nowadays, people rely on the Internet to take care of their kids. And me, I just, let’s go, you’ve got something to do.”

And Tatianna like the other kids appear to be self-motivated, so thoroughly engaged they are in the energy of the Boys and Girls Club.

Children at the LeMoyne Gardens Unit of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Harlingen use technology in a variety of ways in March 2023. (Travis M. Whitehead | Valley Morning Star)

Back at LeMoyne, the Rio Grande Valley Pollinator Project plays Butterfly Bingo with the kids who have small sheets with pictures of butterflies, and Susan Upton calls out their names.

“You got bingo?” she says to Julian Lopez, 9.

“OK, bring your bag and where are you going to pick from?”

“The basket,” Julian says.

“Snacks? OK, go get you some.”

Julian Lopez walked toward the basket.

“I bet I know what you are gonna get,” Upton says

Julian reaches for a small purple bag.

“Takis! I knew it,” Upton says.

It’s now Friday, and several boxes of pizza are stacked on the counter.

“Everybody line up for lunch,” calls out staff member Mariana Reyes as she clears away the tie-dye shirts the kids made the previous day.

The youngsters line up for pizza while two teenage girls shoot pool.

This is supposed to be the last day of National Boys and Girls Clubs Week, but the energy is as powerful as ever. At the Main Unit, the kids line up for glazed donuts. But it’s not just glazed donuts they’re excited about but also the opportunity once again for innovation as they customize their donuts with gummy bears, strawberry sauce and mini lucky charms.

This is the way of things at the clubs throughout the summer, where a constant and changing panorama of sounds, flavors, colors and movement never ends. And as with all things good in the world, there is the practical and the necessary working behind the curtain of this grand stage.

The city of Harlingen is a loyal supporter of the clubs, said Gerald Gathright, executive director of the Boys and Girls Clubs. He gives special recognition to Mayor Norma Sepulveda and the city commission, and then continues to mention numerous organizations that are also vital to the club’s activities: United Way of Northern Cameron County, Texas State Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs, Harlingen Housing Authority, as well as “a host of local individual and corporate sponsors.”

“The Boys and Girls Club of Harlingen’s mission is to enable area young people, especially those who need us most, to realize their full potential as productive, caring, and responsible citizens,” Gathright says.

And just a few feet away a girl serves a volleyball over the net.