A crowd filled the back parking lot of the Boys & Girls Club of Westminster on Wednesday afternoon, while Executive Director Bonnae Meshulam, an assortment of dignitaries and a flock of children wearing orange and yellow hard hats stood before a trough in the asphalt, shovels at the ready.
Meshulam led the crowd in a countdown from 10, “five, four three, two, one,” culminating in at least one “Happy New Year” and shovels of dark loam being spaded up onto the parking lot. A parking lot that won’t be holding cars much longer.
This was the groundbreaking for the long-awaited gym at the Boys & Girls Club’s new location at 71 E. Main Street. The club had purchased the former banking building in 2016, renovated it during 2017 and moved in from its original, cramped location on Union Street on April 9, 2018, according to Meshulam, but the plan had always been to convert the back lot into a gymnasium for the children. The groundbreaking was originally rescheduled Feb. 20, but, she said, “The weather hasn’t been wonderful.”
The sun was shining Wednesday, making Meshulam optimistic in the current plans to have a gym standing in the footprint of the existing parking lot by September.
“It will be great for when we kick off our after-school program and then we can accept so many more kids. We will be able to have 600 kids per day, here at the Boys & Girls Club, once the gym is finished,” she said. “Today is really to get the kids totally excited, since they have been waiting forever.”
The Westminster club is the only Boys & Girls Club in Maryland without a gym, according to Erin Bishop, marketing director for the club.
“The kids come in here after school and they have so much energy, they have been sitting in school all day. They really need to be active, to be able to run around and get all that energy out,” Bishop said. “We have been using the East Middle gym about one hour a week. We have almost 200 members here after school and with one hour a week — we can’t serve 200 kids with just one hour a week.”
Having a gym right out back certainly sounded relieving to Madison Ellis, an eighth-grader at West Middle School.
“I am excited about it, because then we don’t have to walk constantly, all the way to East, since it can be cold sometimes,” she said.
Kayla Goodwin, a Friendship Valley fifth-grader, said having in-house recreational facilities has been a longstanding wish.
The Boys and Girls Club family had fully outgrown its old location at 25 Union Street. The club was servicing 110 children at that time, in a 2,500 square foot space, and so new children and families were stuck on a waiting list.
“I’ve been excited about the gym, and I’ve been here since I was in kindergarten,” she said. “In the old club, we would always go to the gym, or every half day we would go to the pool. It was a long walk and most of the time, by the time we got there, we were out of breath. We didn’t always want to participate because we were so tired from the long walk.”
The new gym will also provide more than mere space or recreation at a short distance. According to Bishop, the new facility will provide all-new opportunities.
“In the new gym we are going to have a sound system, we will be able to have dances, we will be able to do movie nights,” she said. “We really feel like this gym will be a game-changer.”
That applies especially to teenagers, Bishop said. The club serves children age 6 through 18, but the teenage demographic can be the most difficult to keep engaged.
“Teens are interested in hanging out with their friends, they are interested in music and they are interested in sports,” she said. “You have to give them what they want to get them in the door.”
With instruments and a recording studio, and the opportunity for teens to stay until 10 p.m. on Fridays and invite friends, the new facility had already seen an uptick in teen enrollment, according to Bishop, and the hope is adding more sports through the gym will only add to that trend. And it’s about more than providing more services just to be interesting.
“One of the reasons we are trying to focus on recruiting teens as much as we can is because we do have an opioid epidemic happening in Carroll County,” she said. “We believe the best way to prevent teens from getting engaged with drugs is to provide them with positive action activities that they can be doing.”