Boys & Girls Club leader is out after dispute with board

Cookie Steponaitis

Jill did an amazing job for us. Because of her we were able to make the transitions that we made, and I respect her hard work deeply.
— Jeff Fritz

VERGENNES — Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes Executive Director Jill Strube on May 8 parted ways with the organization after a tenure that began in late 2016.
Strube and club board chairman Jeff Fritz both pointed to a disagreement between Strube and the board over the direction of the organization this summer and beyond as the reason for her departure.
In the meantime, on Monday the board brought aboard retired Vergennes Union High School teacher Roberta “Cookie” Steponaitis, who helped found the club 20 years ago and served on its first board, as a part-time interim administrator. 
Steponaitis is a daily volunteer with the club’s ongoing community meals effort who also has used her expertise to help develop the club’s online summer programming. She could serve for up to six months.
Strube, 59, a longtime educator, maintains the club should have done whatever it could to avoid shuttering its doors from March, when it closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, until September, when it is hoped nearby city schools can re-open. 
She said the club should have focused more on its members than providing meals to local families during the current crisis.
“I think that’s an amazing program, and I’m glad we did it, but I suggested the staff needed to get back to the mission of the kids, because that’s what a Boys & Girls Club is. It is an organization for children,” Strube said. “And the board felt differently. And apparently they decided to make a change.”
Strube said the club should be opened this summer “even on a partial basis,” and that it could be done safely, and that the six-and-a-half month gap from early spring to fall would too long, especially if most members were to stay home. 
“I felt very strongly the kids needed to be onsite, also,” Strube said. “I’ve had contact with the kids, and they were definitely struggling with the social distancing and not being able to see their friends, and then were struggling with the online school … I wanted to offer them opportunities to be away from their computers and be kids again.”
Fritz said the board is “terribly concerned about safety” and doesn’t believe it would be financially responsible to spend an extra $7,000 on the sanitation and staffing it would require to open the doors of its Armory Lane for only 10 of its 146 members at a time.
“We could not afford all of the measures necessary,” he said. “That’s a lot of money to us.”
Donations have been strong to support the food program, which has delivered almost 9,000 meals to families, including those of members, since it began on March 18. Nevertheless, Fritz said, it would have been difficult to raise money for sanitation for a six-week summer program for so few members. 
“We would not have necessarily raised $7,000 just for the sanitation program,” he said, adding that Boys & Girls clubs around the nation have taken similar positions.
Fritz said the meals outreach will also enhance the board’s profile and membership in the long run.
“We have to provide as much to those kids as we possibly can. We have to provide as much to the vulnerable as we can, and we are especially sensitive to our members and potential members,” he said.
Fritz praised Strube’s work with members, leadership and organizational skills. In her years at the club she oversaw the move from smaller rented quarters on School Street to the clubhouse on Armory Lane. Membership has roughly doubled, and daily attendance has roughly tripled to about 30. 
“Jill did an amazing job for us. Because of her we were able to make the transitions that we made, and I respect her hard work deeply,” Fritz said. 
Strube said she had been planning to stay with the club until retirement. She’s applied for a couple of jobs since May 8, but has yet to hear back. She didn’t characterize the parting as either friendly or hostile, but said she’ll look back with satisfaction at a job well done. 
“I’m never not going to be proud of what I did at the club,” Strube said. “I wish the club the best. I hope whoever takes it over can keep it moving forward and can continue to make it a place where kids can feel safe and comfortable.”

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