During the past 25 years, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Harford County has grown from serving 40 children in the basement of an Aberdeen church to a countywide organization with five clubs serving slightly more than 5,000 youths each year and additional recreational facilities.
"Kids want to come here," Executive Director Tim Wills said during a recent visit to the Aberdeen club, which has been on East Bel Air Avenue since the early 1990s. "They love this experience; they love the opportunity to try things, and they're doing some really cool things."
Boys & Girls Clubs have been serving children across the United States since the early 1900s, and the Harford County organization started in Aberdeen in 1990 with about 40 children meeting in the basement of Grove Presbyterian Church on West Bel Air Avenue before it moved to Halls Cross Roads Elementary and then its permanent facility.
Aberdeen resident Vi Ripken, who is the mother of former Baltimore Orioles players Billy Ripken and MLB Hall of Fame member Cal Ripken Jr., is a founding board member. She worked with elected officials and civic leaders in the city to get the club off the ground and provide safe after-school activities for children living east of Route 40.
Ripken said the budget at the time was about $40,000, and there was one paid employee.
"We had the executive director," Ripken recalled. "Everybody else was donating their time, so we've come a long way, and hopefully we'll be here 25 years from now, still trying to raise money."
The Clubs' silver anniversary will be the subject of this year's annual Steak & Burger Dinner, which will be held March 26 at the APG Federal Credit Union Arena at Harford Community College.
"It's a birthday party," Wills, who has been with the Harford County clubs since 2009 and executive director since 2012, said.
The 25th Youth of the Year for Harford County will be named, and Wills noted that admission will be free.
It's free, Wills said, because club officials want people to come to show their interest in and support for the youth members, rather than just purchase a ticket for yet another local nonprofit event and simply have a "transactional relationship" with the organization.
"We want people to come to this event, hear stories directly from the four Youth of the Year [finalists]," he explained.
Although admission will be free, donations to the Boys & Girls Clubs are encouraged during the event.
"You're going to give because you care about the mission and what we're doing," Wills said.
The Harford County clubs have a $1.8 million annual operating budget.
"It costs us almost $1,000 per year, per kid, to operate," Wills explained.
Families, however, are only charged $20 per child during the school year, and that child can visit a local club and take advantage of all programs, and then $50 to $90 per week to take part in summer programs.
The summer fees vary according to club location. Clubs are in Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace, with two in Edgewood; the organization also operates the Aberdeen Family Swim Center and the 180-acre Camp Hidden Valley in White Hall.
"We take the average income of the members of that particular club, and we determine what the summer camp rate would be for the area," Wills explained.
With such low fees being charged to members' families, annual contributions from government agencies, foundations, community organizations, businesses and individuals are critical for covering costs, especially when the clubs collectively serve more than 500 children a day and more than 600 per day during the summer, the director said.
There are about 35 full-time and part-time paid staff members and about 150 volunteers.
"Volunteers are so very important," Wills said.
He explained that the paid staffers, who operate the various club facilities each day, provide stability for the members who can "build quality relationships with caring adults."
Wills said volunteers provide expertise in specific program areas, such as employees from Aberdeen Proving Ground who can instruct children taking part in robotics programs.
"Volunteers help keep the niche of our programs moving forward, because we need that expertise, and kids need to be able to see where they can go and have quality role models," Wills said.
He said some volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds – some were members of their local Boys & Girls Clubs when they were children, and others are college students who are studying education or social work.
"They have a passion for what they're doing here at the club, and once you come in and work with kids you really become a part of the mission of what we're trying to accomplish," Wills said.
Ripken, who has served as board president and is still an active board member, said the clubs keep "countless numbers of our young people off of the street, out of undesirable places."
"They're doing constructive things," she said. "It's good for their morale building; they don't have to be afraid when they're in the club, but it's not just play time. They come in, there's a reason they're there, they learn quite a bit about the walks of life."
Wills stressed that the Boys & Girls Clubs facilities are not day care centers.
Harford County boys and girls between the ages of 6 and 18 can come to a club Monday through Friday after school and get help with homework, meals, play sports, video games, table games such as foosball, work on computers, work on robotics projects with Legos, technology projects such as developing smartphone apps, learn how to cook or produce and perform music.
"What we do every day is far from day care," Wills emphasized. "Kids are coming to the club and leaving with solid opportunities for their future."
Don Mathis served as executive director from 1997 to 2007. He said the clubs have been viable in Harford County for 25 years because the programs have been developed and field tested by the national Boys & Girls Clubs organization, and local officials and board members have tapped into the "community energy" to attract continued support.
"It was really the communities in Aberdeen and Edgewood and Bel Air and Havre de Grace and said, 'Yeah, we want this,' " Mathis explained.
Mathis, who is the director of alumni services for Father Martin's Ashley in Havre de Grace, said club members have visited the White House and met famous athletes with ties to Harford County, such as Cal Ripken Jr. and Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps.
"The clubs are an asset to Harford County," said Mathis, who is still an advocate for the organization.
Wills, 32, was not a "club kid" as a child growing up in the St. Louis area, but several friends were members.
He lived too far away from the local club, which was near downtown St. Louis, to be a member. Both of his parents worked, and he and his friends were often left to their own devices after school.
"Often times, [we] just hung out in the streets, getting into trouble, nothing serious, but, you know, keeping ourselves occupied," Wills recalled.
He got involved with the Boys & Girls Clubs as a volunteer while studying broadcast news and media management at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill. After college, he went to work for a local television station and did stories about the club and its members.
"Just being around it so much, it just kind of brought me into it, and I began to see and understand how important the club was in my friends' lives and the kids we were working with," he said.
Wills began working at the Carbondale club as a part-time staffer, and he moved on to Boys and Girls Clubs organizations in Chicago and Northern Virginia.
He came to Harford County in 2009 as the deputy director, and became executive director in 2012.
The job title on his business card states "Chief Kid Officer."
Club kids speak
Matthew Stuart, 21, is a part-time staffer who has been part of the Boys & Girls Clubs since he was a freshman at Aberdeen High School.
He has studied audio engineering and electronic music at Harford Community College and spends 14 hours a week helping teenage members of the Aberdeen club produce and perform music.
He said he learned about the Boys & Girls Clubs through a high school friend.
"It was something to do every day after school," he said of his experience as a club kid. "If I wasn't practicing, playing lacrosse, I was at the Boys & Girls Club."
Stuart said he learned about maturity, and that he "never really left."
"It was just something to do after high school, and I just kept coming back," he said.
Aberdeen member Jordan Lester, 18, a senior at Aberdeen High, has been a member since he was 12.
"It's a fun time," he said. "There's some good people here, as opposed to everywhere else I could be. It's a lot safer, better influences."
Jordan said he wants to be a filmmaker, a profession he was interested in even before he came to the Boys & Girls Clubs.
"They motivate me to stay on track and to just follow the dream," he said of club staff and volunteers.
The Aberdeen club was packed with children and teens during a recent Wednesday afternoon as they filed in after school. Youths worked on computers, did their homework, played games in the common area or sports in the adjacent gymnasium.
"My favorite thing to do is gymnastics, singing and dancing," 9-year-old Julia Hand, of Aberdeen, said.
Julia, who attends Halls Cross Roads Elementary School, said she comes to the club every day. She played with a large group of her classmates at the club.
"I feel happy and excited!" Julia said as she jumped up and down.
She is in a club singing group with her friend and classmate Rochelle Fallin, 8.
"I feel free, and I can do anything!" Rochelle said.
Rochelle is also a club regular, along with her step-sister Timera Walker, also 8. Their mother, Tracy Walker, got the girls involved in the club after her family moved to Aberdeen from Baltimore.
"We were searching for a better place to live, better schools and after-school programs," Walker said.
She said the girls have learned to interact better with other people, and they have "progressed a whole lot" in their reading and math skills.
"They work with them, make sure they do their homework," Walker said of club staffers.
About 30 people serve on the Boys & Girls Clubs board of directors, which club officials say is a key part of the organization's longevity in Harford County.
"I would say it's a committed board, and we've been able to get our message out to the community at large," board member Terry Sexton, 58, of Fallston, said.
The club with the support of Aberdeen city officials and business people.
Sexton, who grew up in Aberdeen, has been a board member since 1992. He has also been board president twice during the late 1990s and the late 2000s.
Sexton was president of T.L Sexton Co. Inc. and Tollgate Building Corp., two Bel Air-based construction firms, and the then-board president, his childhood friend Jerry Lacey, asked him to join the board.
Sexton said he wanted "to give something back to that community where I came from." He brought his building expertise to the board and worked on development of the Aberdeen facility.
Funds were raised for the East Bel Air Avenue club, and it was designed during 1993 and built in 1994, Sexton recalled.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Harford County have operated several clubs in Baltimore and Westminster. Sexton said the organization expanded outside Harford in order to have more clubs to raise more revenue, which would be put back into member programming.
"It was sort of an economy of scale," he explained.
The Westminster and Baltimore clubs have been spun off into their own organizations, however, to keep the focus on Harford County clubs, Sexton explained.
"We've managed to refocus our efforts here in Harford and expand the organization," he said.
The board is made up of many local and regional business people. Jeff Foulk, CEO of SURVICE Engineering, is the president. Lacey, of Schoenfeld Insurance Associates in Baltimore, has been involved since the beginning.
"It's a lot of folks who believe in our mission, and it's a board that's committed and willing to go out and talk about our mission, Sexton said.