The lack of accessibility to after-school programs remains an issue in low-income communities across America. The Boys & Girls Club of Harlem has been dedicated to changing that narrative. As the organization gears up to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its impactful existence in the Harlem community, it’s focused on pushing its efforts to empower youth through enrichment programs forward.
2020 will mark four decades since the Boys & Girls Club of Harlem’s inception. What started out as a program launched by Rev. ML Wilson and Lewis M. Cofield at the Convent Avenue Baptist Church has evolved into a staple and safe haven for youth in the local community that serves 1,200 children annually. The organization provides an array of free programming for children and teens at its clubhouse and headquarters housed inside of the historic P.S. 186 building and other public schools in the neighborhood. It offers programs focused on everything from STEM education to prepare youngsters for careers in tech to creative writing, filmmaking, and theater production. Its year-long observance of its 40th anniversary—which kicked off with an event dubbed “2020 for the Next 40” hosted by Emmy award-winning television journalist Sandra Bookman—will cumulatively celebrate BGCH’s history and influence and what’s on the horizon to further expand its impact in the community.
For the organization’s Executive Director Dominique R. Jones, the mission is personal. While coming of age in Dayton, Ohio she witnessed first-hand how the lack of accessibility to resources for youth can be detrimental. Jones, an active member of the Harlem community, has dedicated her career to leveling the playing field for underserved youth in an effort to change the trajectory of their lives.
The landscape of Harlem is ever-changing. Like several communities throughout the country, the neighborhood has been hit by the wrath of gentrification. Research shows that low-income children born into neighborhoods that are being gentrified were more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety or depression. The organization strives to go beyond academic achievement and focus on the social and emotional wellness of children. By making free youth programs accessible to Harlem residents, they hope to alleviate the financial burdens that many families in the community may have when it comes to affording extra-curricular activities for their children.
“Our organization’s goal is to be the great equalizer,” said Jones. “Many kids in Harlem are challenged with limited access to enrichment and academic support. The anxiety and depression comes into play due to the economic pressure that is placed on families. When parents are feeling the economic pressure, the children are feeling it as well. That gets translated in many different ways. It may be academic performance or behavioral issues. We have to focus on how we can fill that void. It’s essential to invest not only in academic achievement but social and emotional wellness as well. Instrumentally, youth development programs help to foster that.”
Although the size of the organization has been an obstacle, it has discovered power in partnership. Community groups and businesses in the local community have rallied around BGCH to help expand its impact. “I’m grateful for the Harlem community and how its seen the importance and value of our organization,” said Jones. “Our community partners like Harlem Haberdashery have always stepped up to the plate to help us get the word out about what we’re doing, raise money, and engage with folks who may not be familiar with our work. We have embraced the community just as it has embraced us.”
As far as what’s on the horizon for BGCH, the organization plans on expanding its after-school programming. It’s also actively working with other community-based organizations to develop more programs related to arts & culture and athletics. One of the primary focuses is creating workforce readiness programs for teens so they are equipped to adapt and thrive in an ever-changing job market.
All in all, BGCH’s 40th anniversary will celebrate the power of community. “We’re going to be telling our story in many different ways through a variety of events,” said Jones. “We’re very grateful for our community’s support and with this 40th anniversary we really want to celebrate Harlem.”