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Vergennes youth club hits milestone, looks forward

VERGENNES — Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes Executive Director Mike Reiderer has been with the club for 14 of its 15 years and held his post for 13 years.
Reiderer has seen the club’s ups — five of its members have been named Vermont Boys & Girls Clubs’ Youths of the Year — and downs — a 2012 federal funding cut forced the club to shutter its elementary school program.
And he knows other youth organizations have come and gone since its 1999 founding, which the club celebrated last week with a visit from Sen. Patrick Leahy and a dinner at the home of board members Jeff and Andrew Fritz.
So Reiderer had a quick answer for a question about the club’s successes since it was founded in 2000, thanks largely to tireless work by former city resident and first club director Sam Allo.
“One of the biggest things that has gone right is we’re still here,” Reiderer said.
Considering one of the club’s biggest challenges came in its second year, that’s probably fair to say. The club’s first home was in the National Guard Armory on Monkton Road. Dozens of kids had attended the club on a daily basis in the 2000-2001 school year.
Because of construction at Vergennes Union High School, the first day of school, which coincides with the club’s major annual attendance boost, in 2001 was set for the fateful day of Sept. 11.
The club never returned to the armory, and had to close its doors while Allo and Reiderer scrambled for new headquarters.
“We were expecting our typical crowd of 50, 60 kids to be coming through the door that afternoon,” Reiderer said. “We were, like everybody, in shock.”
CHALLENGES
But locations were found. St. Peter’s Catholic Church allowed the club temporary use of its Parish Hall, and the Vergennes Fire Department offered its basement. Eventually, the club set up shop in the Bixby Library basement for a year or two before settling in the two School Street storefronts it has called home since March of 2004.
It was hectic, Reiderer said, in those early days.
“We were scattered,” he said. “I remember carting things around in the back of my truck. It was like a mobile Boys & Girls Club unit.”
He credits those who threw lifelines to the club for its survival.
“I think we were only closed for a week, maybe two weeks, and the community rallied and helped us out with these locations so we were able to continue,” he said.
For several years, the club operated a separate and also popular program for younger kids in a building owned by Vergennes Masons, also on School Street. But late in 2012 the club learned that its annual federal funding would be slashed from about $100,000 to roughly $30,000. The club had to make the tough choice to end its elementary age program, while extending its teen program eligibility to 5th- and 6th-graders.
Funding since then has stayed at about $30,000, thanks in part, Reiderer said, to Vermont’s senior senator.
“Sen. Leahy, who was able to visit us on Wednesday of last week, has been a big part of bringing federal dollars to Boys & Girls Clubs across the country and certainly here in Vermont,” he said.
Reiderer said a positive did emerge from the crisis — more local support. 
“The good side is we did see some nice rallying, the community coming forth and seeing we did have a financial need,” he said.
SUCCESSES
Without an elementary program, school-year attendance has stabilized at around two dozen a day. With the club serving as a free meal site in the summer, about 15 show up for its afternoon hours, Reiderer said.
“The real highlight of the summer is working with the school district to provide lunches for the kids,” Reiderer said. “That’s been just huge. It helps us attract kids, they come not just for lunch, but they stick around after that so we’re able to work with them, give them those mentoring services from our staff and really help guide them.”
As well as mentoring, the club offers a variety of programs. Reiderer, of course, is proud of the club’s Youth of the Year program, and not just because five Vergennes-area teens have earned statewide honors and represented Vermont at the Northeast regional level in a competition that emphasizes citizenship, poise, public speaking and service to the club and community.
Virtually all the candidates benefit from the process, he said.
“They come to us very shy, very reserved, and not really sure where to find their niche. And after a couple of years hanging around here and working with staff and feeling more comfortable with the kids, we see them branch out and grow,” Reiderer said.
And the winners serve as role models for other club members.
“These kids are examples to the other kids that are here. We like to establish Youth of the Year as a goal they can aspire to. They can see they can participate, and even if they are not star athletes or at the top of their class academically, they can still be successful, and the club is the place they can really do that,” he said.
The organization’s Keystone Club also offers leadership training and service opportunities. Its Learning Kitchen teaches cooking skills and good nutrition habits. Its Dinner Club “uses sharing a meal together as a framework to teach etiquette, conversational skills and personal presentation,” and the Brain Gain program encourages reading.
The club has also cooperated with school personnel on anti-bulling and anti-tobacco efforts, while also running its own programs on those fronts.
The club also oversaw a five-year, grant-funded program designed to raise local awareness on alcohol abuse among teens and adults. Reiderer said the impact proved hard to quantify, but he believed the effort was a success.
“We need to learn a little more about the health effects, the effects it has on the developing adolescent brain. We need to be a little more cognizant of the lowering of inhibitions when teenagers get together and drink heavily,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of taking away their keys and saying spend the night here and everything will be fine. I think we were able to spread that awareness.”
Reiderer also believes club members are less prone to substance abuse.
“We also see that most of the kids that come to the club are not using, have not experimented with drugs and alcohol,” Reiderer said. “I think that’s a real testament to the mentoring they’re getting while they’re here. We set pretty clear expectations.”
MISSION STATEMENT
Looking ahead, the club has always wanted a permanent home and has flirted with a couple city locations. Right now, club officials are negotiating to buy a property on Main Street that would meet that long-held goal (see related story).
Reiderer said owning a home would give the club a kitchen to better meet the community’s growing hunger needs — he said roughly 50 percent of Vergennes Union Elementary School Students are eligible for free or reduced lunches, for example —and allow for more outdoor recreation without spreading the staff too thin by sending supervisors offsite.
But regardless of the location, Reiderer is confident the club will remain in place to fulfill its mission: “To inspire and enable all children, especially those who need us the most, to reach their full potential as caring, productive and responsible citizens.”
When Reiderer looks back at his 14 years that is what he remembers.
“Seeing kids come out of the club successful has really been the most tremendous experience and fantastic for me being here as long as I have,” Reiderer said.
“We’re here to work with the Luke Tallmans and Sarah Donnellys and Jason Ouellettes that have just become part of the community, police officers, coaches, parents. And that’s more satisfying than anything, just seeing these kids grow up, graduating high school, graduating college, and move on with their lives. That’s more rewarding than any individual club accomplishments.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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