Boys & Girls Club a haven for families in need

HARLINGEN — Zena looped small rubber bands together to make a chain, her fingers moving swiftly to add one colorful loop, and then another, and another.

Zena, 12, and her friend Gabby had begun the previous night. They’d gone to bed about 1 a.m. but soon Zena was up working on her’s some more.

“I kept staying up too late to do it,” said Zena, a seventh grader at Memorial Middle School.

They now worked at a table at the Le Moyne Gardens Unit of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Harlingen at 3221 N. 25th St. working steadily on their chains. They were in a dead heat to see who could make the longest one.

“We’re just making a pattern with the rubber bands,” said Zena as her hands worked swiftly with the bands. Flickers of green, pink, blue, yellow and orange flashed through her fingers before joining the other links in her chain.

The two residents of Le Moyne Gardens were spending the afternoon at the Boys and Girls Club, one of five units in Harlingen. There also are nine extension sites spread across the city. Le Moyne Gardens is also the location of one of the Harlingen Housing Authority’s residential areas.

Like the other four units, the Le Moyne Gardens facility is located in a low-income area of the city, said Gerald Gathright, chief professional officer. The average annual income of these areas is $10,000 to $15,000, he said. The household income qualifies most children in these high-risk areas for free or reduced lunches at school. About 30 percent of the children are working below grade level in school. The areas are prone to gang activity, including violence.

The children living around Le Moyne Gardens endure poverty and limited transportation. Many come from single parent families and don’t perform well in school.

For many children and even the adults, the Boys and Girls Club site is like a second home where they can hang out with friends, eat a hot meal, join community service organizations and enjoy arts and crafts. Sports leagues offer a vibrant opportunity to play and compete in basketball and other sports throughout the year.

The mission of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Harlingen is to “inspire and enable all young people, especially those from challenging circumstances, to realize their full potential as productive, responsible, and caring citizens.”

AIM Media Texas Charities of the Rio Grande Valley lists the Harlingen Boys and Girls Clubs of Harlingen as one of its recipients for this year’s fundraiser. The organization is one of 21 recipients of the money raised in AIM Media Texas Charities’ annual fundraising campaign. AIM Media Texas is the parent company of the Valley Morning Star, The Monitor, the Brownsville Herald and the Mid-Valley Town Crier.

Gathright was delighted that the Boys and Girls Clubs would be a recipient of funds from AIM.

“We’re very excited because our food service and family service programs have grown tremendously over the years,” he said. “There’s a lot of need in our community and in the Valley for programs that meet the day-to-day needs of families. And so this AIM Charities program will help provide funds that meet some of these needs.”

Gathright elaborated by saying the funds would support programs at all five sites. It would help provide clothes, shoes, paper goods and other commodities through its program called “Family to Family.” The money also would be used to help with food service delivery.

The Boys and Girls Clubs of Harlingen also partners with the school district to help students succeed. Two activities with which it partners with the school district are an essay contest and a public speaking contest.

“It helps kids improve reading and writing skills, and of course speaking skills with the public speaking contest,” said Gathright, who is in his 38th year with the organization.

He’s seen the difference the club can make in the lives of children.

“For many children it’s a home away from home and a safe haven where they can come and be kids and be away from the physical and the moral dangers of the street,” Gathright said. “They’re in a safe place with good programs and things that help them become better citizens. I’ve had dozens and dozens of children and young adults and even older adults now come up to me and recall good memories they have of being part of the Boys and Girls Club.”

The annual budget for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Harlingen is $940,000. The organization saves money by not hiring janitors or maintenance personnel. There are no secretaries.

“We split all those duties among our other staff people, so that kind of helps hold down some of our employee costs,” he said. The organization employs 25 to 30 people. It also is funded by the United Way and by grants from the cities of Harlingen and Primera.

“We raise between $200,000 and $250,000 each year through fundraising activities,” he said.

However, some of the children in the neighborhood don’t raise money just for themselves. The Torch Club, which is a community service organization made up of children, holds regular fundraisers.

“It’s a club that has raised thousands of dollars which they have donated back to community organizations and individuals to help out their community,” Gathright said. “These are 10 to 14-year-old children who live in public housing, and they have raised a few thousand dollars in the last three or four years which they have donated to various causes in our community.”

Zena is one of those Torch Club members.

“It’s a group of kids at the Boys and Girls Club,” she said as she continued looping rubber bands together.

“We raise money by cooking and selling cupcakes to give back to the community,” she said.” I enjoy it. I like to give to them.”

As for the club itself?

“We usually try to come after school and stay here until 7,” she said. “Sometimes we work on our homework. When we finish our homework, we can play video games, play outside, or play in the gym.”

Christopher, 16, plays for “The Celtics,” one of 183 basketball teams in the clubs’ sports program. Those teams are separated into young adult, high school, middle school and elementary divisions. Currently the Boys and Girls Clubs is in its winter season for basketball.

“That’s my sport that I like to play when I come to the Boys and Girls Club,” said Christopher, a junior at Early College High School.

He said his and other children’s’ parents are grateful for the Boys and Girls Club in their neighborhood.

“They have people that know how to take care of us and they know we are here doing things we should be doing,” said Christopher, who has a GPA of 3.0.

Like his fellow ECHS classmates, he’s in dual enrollment at Texas State Technical College and has taken six college classes. He plans to study criminal justice in college and become a police officer.

Leily, 14, also likes coming to the club almost every day. The Dr. Abraham P. Cano Freshman Academy student has been coming to the club since she was in the fourth grade.

“We play basketball, we play kickball, we do stuff in the kitchen like cupcakes,” said Leily, who is also in the Torch Club.

Gathright commended her for recently obtaining employment as scorekeeper for the basketball games.

“She’s learning job skills now, money for school,” he said.

Christopher had also been a scorekeeper.

On the basketball court, Gathright’s wife Hilda, unit director, was working with two 7-year-old girls.

“All of you jump rope,” she said as the two girls laughed and jumped over the colorful cords.

“I look forward to working with them when they come here,” she said. “I want to be able to work with them so I can encourage them to want to participate.”

Many of the parents volunteer at the club. Ana Perez has two children and they were doing their homework.

“They learn to behave and be good leaders,” said Perez, who helps out with cleaning the floors, serving lunch and other duties. She was on the basketball court with Hilda Gathright and the two girls.

She grimaced at the thought of life without the Boys and Girls Club.

“Ohhh!” she said. “They would be very different from what they are now.”

As things are, her two children are learning social skills while interacting with the neighborhood children. They don’t get into fights and they behave.

“If they hadn’t come here, they wouldn’t have gotten that,” she said. “These kids are getting direction.”

At the other end of the court, the sound of basketballs hitting the floor filled the air as Christopher, Leily and several other students played. Chris rushed around some other players and tossed the ball. Leily grabbed it and held it tight before tossing it toward a small boy who grabbed it and rushed around the players.

Through funds donated by AIM Media and other organizations, students like these will have the resources to better their lives through sports, tutorials and food assistance.