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North Hills Monthly

How do the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania Benefit Local Youth?

Aug 31, 2015 11:35AM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch
Thousands of local children, and their parents, take advantage of the after-school programs that the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania have to offer. Mike Hepler, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania, speaks about why these clubs are critical to the growth and development of children.

North Hills Monthly Magazine (NHMM): Give me a little background on the Boys & Girls Clubs. When did it get its start, and what is its purpose?
Mike Hepler: Our written mission is to inspire and enable all young people to reach their full potential as productive, responsible and caring citizens of their community, America and the world, and we’ve always stayed true to that mission. There are eight branches in western Pennsylvania; the Shadyside branch is one of the original founders of Boys Clubs of America, dating back to 1888. In 1987, a name change to Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania was affected, though the national organization did not change its name until 1990; from that point on, it was full-service to both males and females.

NHMM: Has the vision of the organization changed since it was first established?
Hepler: At one point, it focused on disadvantaged youth, but that terminology has since been extracted, and I think that is a good thing. Children are children; you can’t label them. It doesn’t matter the challenges that young people face. It doesn’t matter if they’re from Fox Chapel or a distressed neighborhood. Children need someone to help them navigate through the childhood years, and labeling them is not the right thing to do.

NHMM: What type of programming do Boys & Girls Clubs offer?
Hepler: We fine-tuned the program model two years ago, and now there are six core services: education, the arts, health and life skills, sports and fitness, career development, and teen entrepreneurship. We run a formal tutoring program called After School Excellence with instruction by certified teachers. The curriculum is aligned with state standards and focuses on reading and math skills. We are helping children navigate through the academic system; for the most part, whatever they are doing in school, we are teaching. We have learning labs in all of our clubs and we try to maintain a low teacher-to-student ratio. We also help young people complete their homework and there is a reward system linked to that. In addition to formal after-school tutoring, children are engaged in sports, fitness, crafts, game rooms, nutritional programs, computers and special events.

NHMM: Tell me a little about the teen entrepreneurship program.
Hepler: One of the biggest attractions we have to get teens off the street is employment. We had a t-shirt business at one center operated by teens. Eighty percent of what they generate, they keep; the other 20 percent goes back into the infrastructure. We also look for other employment opportunities within local communities that we serve outside of Boys & Girls Clubs’ employment.

NHMM: If these children didn’t have Boys & Girls Clubs to go to after school, what might they be doing instead?
Hepler: The old phrase was ‘latchkey children’ — kids who would go home to an empty household. Parents would try their best to make sure that they were safe, but if you look at crime statistics, between 3 and 8 p.m. is the dominant time period when juvenile crime occurs, which just happens to be the peak of our programming after school. Our job is to keep kids engaged in something positive after school because the alternatives are the streets, an empty home, and getting into things they shouldn’t be getting into.

NHMM: How many children do you serve each year?
Hepler: There are two types of populations—everyday members average around 7,000 young people throughout the year. We also provide outreach program, one-day events for kids and communities; that brings that number up to over 8,000. In the summer, we have eight day camps in full operation, and this year we will have served over 6,000 young people.

NHMM: What would you say makes the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania stand out from other such clubs?
Hepler: We run some cutting-edge educational programs. We actually took the after-school tutoring program models that the national office has to a much higher level. We took entrepreneurial programs for teens to a much higher level. The model for young people is developed by the children and in some situations, by their parents. We listen. We try to adjust programs and staffing with each individual club to the culture of the community. That makes us different.

NHMM: Is there a cost for membership?
Hepler: We started experiencing significant funding cuts three to four years ago, which has been a tremendous challenge. Now, we have a membership fee of $12 a month, which breaks down to 50 cents a day. We try to minimize add-on fees for specialty programs.

NHMM: Where does the rest of your funding come from?
Hepler: We try to establish a broad base of funding—we have individual donations, corporate donations and the United Way Impact Fund. We have a modest endowment; we received state education dollars for some after-school tutoring programs we conduct, and some special event fundraising. We probably have 12 primary sources for funding.

NHMM: What kind of impact do you think affiliation with the Boys & Girls Clubs makes in a child’s life?
Hepler: We don’t make every young person a star. But what we do every day is to teach young people how to reach for the stars. Every child who comes across that threshold every day, they are there for their own reasons. One thing in my career I’ve noticed is that every time you look into eyes of children, you get a magical glimpse into the future of this country.