By ANDY KIRKALDY
VERGENNES — In 1999 Jason Ouellette, now a 26-year-old Vergennes police officer, became one of the first members of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes, which at that point met at the National Guard Armory across Monkton Road from Vergennes Union High School.
Like many of the more than 1,000 regular attendees in the club’s 10-year history, Ouellette enjoyed hanging out after school in a place that offered video games, pool tables, air hockey and Pokémon tournaments.
But Ouellette, who later volunteered and worked part-time for the organization, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this summer, said he soon realized the club meant more to him. The supervisors offered homework help, job-seeking advice, leadership training and sympathetic ears.
“It gave me an opportunity to speak to adults with issues in school and stuff,” he said. “If you had any concerns or anything, you could always go to that place.”
Soon, Ouellette also discovered he had much in common with students he had never really spoken to.
“The greatest thing about that place is there were never any groups,” Ouellette said. “There, the kids that would never talk to each other would talk to each other. It would create some sort of camaraderie in that place, and it would grow into the school.”
Boys & Girls Club executive director Mike Reiderer said testimony like Ouellette’s is not unusual. The club asks its annual Youth of the Year candidates what the club has meant to them, a question required by the competition.
For example, Curtis Bessette wrote, “The Boys & Girls Club has helped me become the man I am today by giving me a place that kept me from being around people who are not positive. The Club is a place where you see people for who they are and not for who they want you to see.”
Sara Donnelly wrote, “After I started going to the Club I noticed there were many children that didn’t have the social experiences I had growing up. I started working with these children and realized my love for helping kids. Now I want to go to college to study social work and early education.”
Reiderer, a nine-year club employee who took over as executive director from club founder Sam Allo seven years ago, said comments like these show the organization may be meeting its goals.
“That’s our mission, trying to help kids achieve their full potential,” Reiderer said. “If your full potential is advanced degrees and real community leader, great, we’re here to foster that. If what your hoping is to pass math class and graduate and get a job, great, we’re here to help with that.”
Reiderer credits the tireless work of Allo and other backers of a permanent center for Vergennes-area youth for opening the club’s doors on July 5, 1999.
“He and a group of caring community members realized there was a lack of things for kids to do after school ... a lack of supervision and lack of meaningful activities in their lives,” Reiderer said.
Other efforts to form youth clubs had come up short. After research Allo and others settled on the Boys & Girls Club template. The clubs are independently operated but are members of the larger organization.
Reiderer said access to foundation and government grants is generally stable, a fact that helps support what is now a roughly $200,000 annual operating budget for the club’s two centers and seven full-time and part-time employees.
The founders also noted that support was always available, he said.
“There was always somebody they could call that’s done this before, that’s been through the struggles that could help out,” Reiderer said.
When the doors were opened at the Armory, the club proved to be an immediate hit: 70 or 80 youths often crossed Monkton Road at the end of the school day, even if the site was a bit unusual.
“We’ve got to be one of the few Boys and Girls Clubs that had a tank in the back of our gym,” Reiderer said.
Then came Sept. 11, 2001. Armories across America that had hosted programs could no longer do so, and in Vergennes the club spent several months bouncing between churches, the city fire department and the Bixby Library basement.
Those were difficult times for the club, said Reiderer, who had signed on as a program director in 2000.
“We closed down for about two weeks and … begged and borrowed space all over town,” he said.
Teen attendance dwindled to an all-time low of about 10, although separate spaces for the younger (ages 6 to 12) children allowed that program to thrive and proved to be a hidden blessing: Now 45 elementary school age children attend after school daily.
In 2003, the club rented space in its current clubhouse at 53 School Street, and teens started to return. This past school year, with the addition of VUHS girls’ basketball coach Billy Waller as teen program director, daily attendance ranges from 25-30.
Reiderer said finding the stable location was key.
“That’s a tough hurdle to overcome when no one knows where you are,” Reiderer said. “Moving into this place ... was a huge help, and things have really been on the upswing ever since.”
The younger club members moved four years ago from the Bixby to 54 School Street, a building owned by the local Masons. That change has gone well, even if Reiderer said demand could probably support a larger space than that provided by gracious hosts.
“They (the Masons) have been phenomenal, understanding of the little glitches that come up when you put 40 kids in a basement,” Reiderer said.
PROGRAMS AND STAFF
As well as the meeting centers, recreation, guidance and camaraderie, the organization offers a series of year-round leadership, education and career development, arts, social-skill and fitness programs.
The annual Youth of the Year competition provides one measure of those programs' success. The city-area club has participated with the other five Vermont Boys & Girls clubs for eight years, and Vergennes teens have claimed the statewide honor three times. Reiderer said that track record reflects well on the area, too.
“A kid isn’t named Youth of the Year because they sit here for 20 hours a week. It’s because of their community service. It’s their involvement at school. It’s their involvement at home,” he said. “It really is a community honor.”
The club also works with Addison Northwest Supervisory Union officials on a school-based substance-abuse prevention effort, and also received a three-year, $360,000 Strategic Framework Prevention grant from the Vermont Department of Health in January 2008.
“(Our role) goes way beyond recreation,” he said. “The role we play in the community is tremendous. I consider that our greatest success.”
Reiderer said the club’s success has much to do with staff. He notes, for example, that Deb Hall, who coordinates programs for younger members, and part-time teen worker Cathy Ciociola have worked for the organization for seven and five years, respectively.
“That helps with the consistency, the philosophy behind it, the expectations of the kids, the way the kids are treated,” he said.
Ouellette said he would like to see more community members volunteer at the club, and he hopes even more youths get from the club what he did.
“I would love to see it in other communities in the surrounding area, because it does a great things for the kids. Because it keeps them out of mischief,” Ouellette said. “That’s the real positive thing about the place, controlled fun. Someone’s always there.”