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Perspective | Community spotlight: Boys and Girls Club of Henderson County focuses on ‘fun with a purpose’

Editor’s note: This feature is part of a series recapping the 2022 Emerging Issues Forum with the Institute for Emerging Issues. The 2023 Emerging Issues Forum will take place on Monday, February 13, 2023, at the NC State University McKimmon Center in Raleigh. This year’s forum will examine ways to address NC’s labor shortage by putting the needs of workers first and overcoming barriers to employment. Go here to learn more.

Kindergarten may seem too early to be thinking about postsecondary educational attainment, but the Boys and Girls Club of Henderson County (BGCHC) believes school-age is a critical time to influence young people on their path to success. One of the five organizations chosen to participate in IEI’s educational attainment cohort, BGCHC believes in having “fun with a purpose.” 

“Everything that we do as a club has a learning component,” said Julia Hockenberry, BGCHC executive director. “We play a lot here, we’re having fun, but it’s fun with a purpose and a lesson. We want our children to value [education] and to have a growth mindset and believe that they’re worthy and that they can achieve.” 

The Boys and Girls Club mission is broad — “to inspire and enable young people, especially those who need us most, to realize their full potential as productive, responsible, caring citizens” — and its programs range from music lessons to sports and dance to academic tutoring — the “mind, body, and soul” approach to raising better citizens. This approach aligns with improving educational outcomes, with different tactics for different ages.

In younger kids, the focus is on developing good behavior and habits, like getting schoolwork done each day. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an added emphasis at the club on academic recovery. They have hired more tutors for remediation and intervention, plus a reading specialist.

Club programs for high schoolers prepare students for the future, taking them on college visits, teaching them about financial literacy, and helping them develop soft skills. A new program called Project Hope even removes the financial barrier for qualifying club members to pursue postsecondary education once they graduate from high school.

Students who are engaged with the Boys and Girls Club see positive outcomes. According to report cards, 93% of club members were on track to advance grade levels on time. For more than a decade, 100% of club seniors have graduated from high school. Although the Boys and Girls Club doesn’t serve young people past high school graduation, they believe in setting those students up for future success by helping them cultivate their skills and showing them many possible pathways. 

“Fifty-seven percent of our kids are youth of color, so we’re visiting [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] and exposing them to all different kinds of avenues for postsecondary education,” said Hockenberry. “It’s really critical that we’re being diverse in the exposures that we offer our kids.”

Joreeca Dinnall, a former club-goer and current member of the BGCHC board of directors, testified to the impact the club had on her life. 

“When I found the Boys and Girls Club, I was just a 15-year-old girl, trying to figure things out on her own. If you can imagine an angry, crying teenager without hope or guidance, that was me, walking into the club that very first day. Even with all my baggage at the front door, I was accepted with open arms. As a club member, I thrived. I earned a job as a junior staff member. I became the first in my family to graduate from high school and earn a college degree.”

Hockenberry cautions that this kind of work takes time — she calls it “crockpot work” — and there is no one size fits all approach.

“Kids don’t come out of a machine with a cookie cutter, and you can’t come in with one idea or one program and expect every child to be successful,” said Hockenberry. “You really have to start with where they are and build them up … It takes a long time for kids to change, and you need to stick it out with them. You cannot expect an overnight phenomenon. And often that means significant financial investment, significant patience, and the ability to adjust when things aren’t working.”

The Boys and Girls Club of Henderson County is one of five community-based organizations chosen by IEI as part of the 2022 Emerging Issues Forum on educational attainment in NC.

Kirsten Chang

Kirsten Chang is a digital communications specialist at the Institute for Emerging Issues at NC State University.