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City youth club has big impact over 20 years

BOYS AND GIRLS Club of Greater Vergennes volunteer Carol Safori serves up dogs and burgers on Wednesday at the organization’s Armory Lane clubhouse during the club’s 20th birthday celebration.

VERGENNES — There were many reasons for more than 100 people of all ages to gather on this past Wednesday evening at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Vergennes’ Armory Lane headquarters.
The biggest was to celebrate the youth organization’s 20th anniversary. The club, the brainchild of the late Sam Allo, officially came into being on July 4, 1999, and opened its doors soon afterward in the Vermont National Guard Armory, nearby on Monkton Road.
Youth clubs can be hard to establish, never mind nurture through two decades. Jill Strube, the Vergennes-area club’s director for the past three years, said the 20th anniversary milestone alone is meaningful.
“I think it means we’re here to stay. I think it means we’re part of the community,” Strube said. “I think we’ve finally gotten to the point now people know we’re here. For me that’s significant.”
But not only that, she said, since 2016 the club’s average daily attendance has grown from seven to 30 children. The number has almost doubled in the past year, since the club moved from its longtime home in rented School Street space to its Armory Lane clubhouse, about a seven-minute walk from Vergennes Union High School.
And that was another reason to celebrate this past Wednesday. The event offered free food and beverages, a bouncy house, a fire truck and a miniature horse for kids, and tours of the new clubhouse, a kayak raffle and an auction of a picnic table built by club members for adults. All that was followed by ringside seats for the Vergennes Independence Day fireworks display.
“The high school being so close we get a lot of people coming over after school, directly from school,” Strube said. “People are coming because, one, we have a beautiful space, and two, we can play outside now. That has been huge, to be able to have basketball, to be able to toss a football around on the lawn, and the kids love that. That, to me, has been a huge step forward.”
Club officials also unveiled a plaque to honor Allo, who died in 2011. Longtime club volunteer Cookie Steponaitis spoke about Allo’s honor and revealed she was the first to learn of Allo’s plan.
Steponaitis said Allo told her to come down to Button Bay and come talk about kids. His message, she said, was, “Our kids need a place.”
Steponaitis said Allo had a plan to fill in the afterschool gaps for working families, and to meet the needs of kids who maybe could use a little help with schoolwork and life skills as well as a place to relax and socialize.
“He said, ‘We need a Boys and Girls Club,’” Steponaitis recalled, and then Allo proceeded to make it happen with countless meetings with city officials, civic organizations, church groups, foundations and more.
“Sam was not a man to let go of a dream,” she said.
Steponaitis, who said she helped move the club five times, said she was sure Allo knew somehow that it had finally found a home, thanks in part to a generous matching grant from Roberta and Philip Puschel of Panton.
“Unfortunately, Sam left us early before this wonderful dream could be fully realized. But one thing left on his checklist was a permanent home. And with the generosity of the Puschel family and the town and the people that has now become a reality. So I assure you somewhere up there looking down, with a big old grin and a barbecue spatula in one hand, is Sam Allo,” she said.
Yet another reason, and probably the biggest, according to the club’s board chairman, Jeff Fritz, is what the club has been able to provide its members. As well as a place to relax and enjoy each other’s company, the club’s employees and volunteers offer homework aid and programs that help members improve life skills. 

LIVES CHANGED
“I have honestly seen it change lives. I know that seems incredibly trite, but I can tick off three really compelling stories I’ve experienced,” Fritz said.
One, he said, is that of a young man who graduated VUHS and was given 90 days by his family to find a job or get out of his home.
Fritz said the graduate “didn’t even really know how to complete a job application,” but after support and coaching at the club he is now supporting himself, attending school part-time in Burlington, and living in his own apartment.
“It really does represent what we do here. The little changes we are able to make in the lives of these young people are amazing,” Fritz said. “That’s why we’re here.”
While many members are from families that have faced persistent poverty, Fritz said the club also draws from a broad spectrum, in part thanks to the new headquarters.
“One of the effects of having this new home is our demographics have changed dramatically,” he said. “Having a place like this has helped us attract a broader demographic. It’s really that basic. And the interaction is phenomenal. Just watch what happens here every day.”
Club member Zach Botala, a rising VUHS junior, echoed many club officials’ comments. Botala has just completed his final Eagle Scout requirement by building two picnic tables for the club.
Botala, an almost daily attendee for the past eight years, said it wasn’t a difficult choice when it came to finding a community-service project for his Eagle Scout badge.
“They’ve done so much for me, I thought why not do something for them,” he said.
Botala said he first started attending almost out of necessity.
“It was a place to go and hang out with friends. It was somewhere to go. My parents needed to work and couldn’t really watch me, so they just sent me there,” he said.
Both he quickly became attached to the club.
“I was like, all right, this place is kind of cool,” Botala said. “And then I started coming on my own.”
Why?
“Some of the stuff that they have in there, like the electronics and the meals. And the people in there create a really nice atmosphere,” he said.
Botala enjoyed the years at School Street, but agreed the Armory Lane home is a big step up.
“It’s a lot more convenient for me. I’m just right over there at the high school. It’s a lot bigger, a lot nicer,” he said. “Now there’s a yard. We’ve thrown a football. We’ve thrown a whiffle ball, hit a whiffle ball, tennis balls. There’s a basketball hoop up there. We play basketball, two square, just come outside and just chill out.”
As his life goals became clearer, the club has been there for him — Botala wants to study criminal justice, possibly at the Community College of Vermont, and eventually become a game warden.
“They’ve just helped me and supported me, just given me advice because I’m an older student, older kid who’ll soon be going out of high school. They’ve given me some life advice,” he said.
Botala would suggest more students should give the club a look.
“Go for it,” Botala said. “There are great people here. Take advantage of them.”

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