What do Jennifer Lopez, Denzel Washington, Martin Sheen and General Wesley Clark have in common? And how does it keep kids from committing crimes?
So often in this space I write about terrible things being done to -- and sometimes by -- the children of America. From sex trafficking to bullying, it is easy for a crime and justice writer to get mired in the all the negative surrounding our kids.
This time let's concentrate on the positive.
Any child psychologist will tell you young people crave attention, structure and discipline. Any cop on the beat will tell you there are plenty of kids who just don't get it at home. Their parents are either too busy working to pay the bills or their parents can't pass it on because they never got it themselves.
The Boys and Girls Clubs of America are here to fill the gap. You can find a club in all 50 states. At last count they serve about four million kids in big cities and small towns at dedicated Boys and Girls Club buildings or places like schools, on Native American lands and at military bases.
I recently got involved in this wonderful organization and realized that what they do goes a tremendously long way to keep kids on the right path, away from the criminal element and focused on hope for their futures. 65 percent of the Club's members are from minority families, 47 percent come from single parent households, the majority of members are boys but 45 percent are girls.
The Club staff members check each child's report card every quarter and when they see trouble a special after-school tutoring squad steps in. A certain grade level must be maintained before the child can be a member of the basketball, baseball, aquatic, karate or other athletic team. If a child is hungry they are fed a hot meal, if an older member needs help for college the Club steps up to try to attract scholarships.
If the child has a unique challenge -- for example, I met one young Club graduate who had suffered with a terrible stutter at one point -- the Club offers encouragement and puts out the call to its web of volunteers to get the needed help.
If a family is unable to pay the nominal dues of between just five and eight dollars a year -- perhaps they have multiple children in the home -- the BGCA find a way to subsidize them.
The Boys and Girls Clubs of America make such a lifelong impression on these kids that a huge proportion of the 54,000 trained professional staffers nationwide were once Club members themselves. Once a member, always a member.
During my visit to one of the most celebrated clubs -- the Kip's Bay Club in the Bronx, New York -- beaming staff member Dwayne Lindo reminded me that singer/actress Jennifer Lopez got her start right there as part of the club's renowned performing arts program. Lopez is still involved in the organization as one of their national spokespeople. Two-time Academy Award winning actor Denzel Washington, also a New York Club alumnus, is another.
"The Club is where I looked for hope, purpose and direction," Washington says today. "That's where I learned to dream -- and to think big."
Other now famous Boys and Girls Club members include: General Wesley Clark who joined a Club in Little Rock, Arkansas as a boy and rose to become a four-star general and NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe; Secretary of the Interior and former Congressman Manuel Lujan who joined the Club started by his father in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Shaquille O'Neal who says he honed his basketball skills at a Club in Newark, New Jersey and has donated 1 million dollars to build technology centers for the kids; Martin Sheen says he and six brothers practically grew up at the club in Dayton, Ohio back in the '40s and '50s and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, considered one of the greatest female athlete of the 20th century, was not only a member of a Boys and Girls Club in rough and tumble East St. Louis, Missouri, she later opened another Club there. Joyner-Kersee says the organization helped her from taking the wrong path in life and kept her focused on developing her potential.
Many former members are active in fund raising, which is where most of the Club's money comes from. The weakened economy has meant some funds have dried up but still Staples donates school supplies to the tutoring programs, Microsoft and IBM give computers and keeps them running. Coca Cola sponsors nutrition programs and JC Penney generates millions of dollars for the Clubs by urging customers to "round up" their bill at check out. Bank of America helps the Clubs feed hungry children.
This isn't a solicitation for money, although I can't think of a more worthwhile cause.
The organizations motto is: "Boys & Girls Clubs believe every child has the potential to BE GREAT. Clubs strive to build caring, responsible citizens ... to create a positive place full of hope and opportunity for every child."
Sounds great to me and I wanted you to know. It's programs like these that can break the cycle of young people turning to crime.
Diane Dimond may be reached through her website: www.DianeDimond.com. Her latest book is "Cirque du Salahi"- the story you didn't hear about the so-called White House Gate Crashers -- available at Amazon.com