Attendance on the rise at Vergennes Boys & Girls Club after changes made

VERGENNES — About a year ago the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes was putting the finishing touches on a roughly $100,000 renovation of its School Street headquarters and had just hired longtime local afterschool program head Jill Strube as its new executive director.
It hoped to attract more young members who otherwise might have nothing better to do after school.
As the 2016-2017 school year began daily club attendance ran between 15 and 18 5th-through-12-graders, and the club’s total membership stood at 75.
And this fall? A typical day sees around two-dozen of the club’s 109 members stop in after school. One day 31 dropped in to finish their homework on one of a half-dozen new computers, play games like table soccer or pool, admire the new self-sustaining fish tank, play videogames, hangout with their friends, make block prints, or enjoy full meals in a new kitchen.
“Every day since they’ve been back to school it’s been over 20. I don’t think we’ve had a day under 20 in October,” Strube said. “Our average attendance is definitely up.”
   JILL STRUBE, EXECUTIVE director of Boys and Girls Club of Greater Vergennes, has been credited with bringing a good tone and grant-writing skills to the club in her first year on the job.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Boys & Girls Club board President Jeff Fritz said the renovations themselves have made a difference.
The club previously could only serve snacks, but now dishes out 400 full meals a month; now has its own bathrooms with showers, rather than having to share facilities with other tenants of the building on the corner of School and Green streets; and has a washer and dryer, important not only for club kitchen linen but for some members who need help cleaning clothes.
“The really exciting thing we’ve done is institute a meals program,” Fritz said. “It was one of the motivators behind the renovations, so we could actually expand our services and add meals. The other thing would be the laundry services.”
And Strube said the clubhouse is simply friendlier and more welcoming.
“This space is so much more inviting. It’s bright. It’s airy. It doesn’t smell bad any more,” she said. “The kids tell me the carpet used to smell bad. The first day I was here when the carpet was in one of the kids who came all last year came in and literally threw herself on the carpet and rolled around and said, ‘It’s clean. It doesn’t smell bad.’ That, to me, says a lot.”
Fritz throws credit Strube’s way, too, citing her “sense of discipline” and lengthy experience working with students, providing programming and writing grants.
“She’s no-nonsense. She came in and sort of just took control, and that’s exactly what we needed to have her do. And her input has been invaluable in setting this new direction,” Fritz said. “And her background in working with kids has been very useful for us, of course.”
In the past year there have been new programs (on top of many existing efforts ranging from cooking classes to Lego robotics) and grants:
•  The club recently hosted four printmaking workshops after it and the city’s Creative Space Gallery were jointly awarded a $1,182 Vermont Arts Council grant to have a steamroller press prints in the Kennedy Brothers parking lot on Oct. 14. Some club members’ work will be on display and for sale at the gallery through Friday, along with that of professional artists and Vergennes Union Elementary School students. Some proceeds will benefit the club.
•  Another arts class with Middlebury artist Norma Rollette is ongoing for nine young members, and she will return in January for a second class for older members. An Elaine Raphael Arts Foundation grant supports the classes.
•  A bus now brings a half-dozen new Ferrisburgh Central School members to the club, courtesy of a three-year, $2,400 Children’s Trust Fund Grant. That effort resulted from Strube’s brainstorming session with FCS Principal Beth Brodie after a parent survey showed demand.
•  A $7,300 grant from the Williston Best Buy funded eight Samsung tablets that the club will use for a class to teach older members to write code for installing apps on Android phones. “The older kids are pretty excited about that,” Strube said.
•  Another $5,000 came from the TJ Maxx Foundation to support the club’s ongoing efforts to help members with homework. Strube also arranged a donation from local schools of three desktop computers and three Chromebooks for the same purpose.
•  This past Thursday morning, when school was out, the club hosted its first “Make and Take Halloween Cooking and Crafts” event. It was open to members and guests. A total of 22 youths showed up, including seven non-members, four of who signed up as members. Strube said a similar Thanksgiving-themed event is planned for Nov. 3, another day off from school.
Meanwhile the club’s finances appear to be as healthy as one could hope for a nonprofit. Fritz said a couple of gambles have paid off, one being the investment in the renovations.
The other was a decision a year ago to forego applying for a $40,000 state tobacco-cessation grant the club had earned annually in recent years. Basically, Fritz said, the club’s board decided the application and reporting process was placing too much of a burden on club employees.
But even without that pot of money, Strube and the board’s fundraising efforts exceeded the club’s annual budget of $178,000 by about $25,000. Fritz credited Strube’s frugality and grant-writing, but also new energy and determination on the board.
   CUBBIES BUILT, DONATED and installed by Silver Maple Construction in New Haven are a very successful part of the renovation work done at Boys and Girls Club of Greater Vergennes.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
“We’ve got a much more active board,” Fritz said.
For example, the board joined with local food professionals and the boards of the Bixby Library, Vergennes Partnership and Vergennes Opera House in staging the successful “Eat on the Green” event on Sept. 30, with proceeds benefitting all four nonprofits. Fritz said it went so well organizers plan on making it an annual fall staple in the city.
Now, Fritz said, the board is looking past its current five-year lease on Green Street and again wondering, as club officials have off and on for the nonprofit’s 18 years of existence, whether it should have its own free-standing home.
“The prospects for the future are very bright,” Fritz said. “If we can continue this momentum, and I see no reason we can’t, I hope we will be running out of space within five years.”
Both Strube and Fritz said the key to that growth would be continuing to make the club a place where its members are happy and safe. Both also cited results of a survey the club conducted of its members in preparation of the board’s annual appeal to the United Way of Addison County.
In particular, they focused on one remark from a member who often naps when she attends.
“One of our kids wrote, ‘I like the Boys & Girls Club because I feel safe enough to fall asleep,’” Strube said. “She felt comfortable enough to take a nap, and that says it all.”
The Boys & Girls Club will be hosting an open house on Thursday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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