The Place To Be

BY Stephanie Miller

The Community Boys & Girls Club of Wilmington is a part of its parent organization The Boys and Girls Club of America which is ranked nationally as one of the ten “Best Charities Everyones Heard of.” At the same time and not surprisingly it has its own unique Wilmington character. Its story begins with five gentlemen who built a solid foundation for African American youth in the late 1930s and 1940s and carried on that tradition for the better part of 50 years leaving the club strong for the next generation of leaders and children.

In 1937 the clubs first executive director H. Carl Moultrie along with Archie Blue met in the basement of Williston Industrial High School with leaders of the black community to get a group off the ground for young boys. Their goal was to provide social educational and physical activity for the “up-and-coming generation.”

These were no ordinary men. Mr. Moultrie went on to distinguish himself as a judge on the Washington D.C. circuit court after attending Howard Law School. A federal courthouse in Washington now bears his name. Mr. Blue a retired railroad worker loved and respected in the Wilmington community stayed on and founded the clubs drum and bugle corps still a favorite today. In 2007 the city of Wilmington acknowledged Mr. Blues contribution by naming a park after him.

As World War II began the club closed in 1940 but opened again in 1943 in the old Gregory School Building on Nun Street where Walter E. Bess began his 30-year tenure as the second executive director. The current executive director Wayne Lofton is living proof of the high bar Bess set for his protgs. “He was a mentor. He was a friend. As a kid he looked after us as if we were his own sons ” says Lofton.

The club relocated again in 1947 this time to the former U.S.O. facility at 901 Nixon Street. Soon after that the legendary Earl Jackson joined Bess to run the athletic program. Jackson stayed for almost 50 years. A talented athlete himself “Papa Jack” was an inspiration to his charges. He was joined in this mission by Joe McGuire who gave nearly 40 years of his life to the club. “Mr. Joe ” who ran a store across the street would close up shop or hand over the keys and walk to his second job as the game room director.

Mr. Joe was there during the major expansion of the Nixon Street facility. Under the direction of the chairmen of the Combined Capital Drive Dan Cameron and Dr. D. C. Roane the Boys Club and the Salvation Army raised more than $1 million for the new facilities. Members of the Cameron family have been solid supporters of the Club ever since says Lofton. The new building was dedicated in 1979 and subsequently changed its name in 1994 to the Community Boys and Girls Club of Wilmington girls now make up more than half of the clubs members which is how it is known today.

The club has been in this nearly 20 000-square-foot concrete building between Snipes Elementary School and D.C. Virgo middle school for almost 30 years now but the needs have changed dramatically since the late 1980s. Boys in the Bess era says Lofton “didnt have to struggle with gang violence high criminal activity drop-outs at an astonishing rate it appears now that a lot of children especially those in low income areas of the inner city have lost real hope that there can be anything in life thats better than what they have.” The club does all that it can to renew that hope.

Funding has also changed dramatically as the years have passed. Entities like United Way and The Boys and Girls Club of America used to fund organizations like the Community Boys and Girls Club of Wilmington directly. Now they require solicitation through grant proposals. Lofton must solicit 100 percent of the clubs dollars through private corporate and public donations and grants.

“When people walk in their perception is that this is a place where kids come to play. And thats true. I dont want sad kids in my club. But this place is complex and it is corporate. We are a nonprofit corporation ” says Lofton.

Loftons experience as a business owner has helped the club become an efficient operation says board member Holland Graham but more important than that the kids love him. “Hes such a positive influence and such a great person to be there running the club ” says Graham.

The children pay a nominal fee to belong though the cost to the club per child runs between $3 000 and $5 000 per year. Basically the kids are educated and fed at no charge. Lofton believes it to be a good investment in our youth. “It takes $72 000 a year to keep an inmate incarcerated ” he says. “Is it a better investment to spend $3 000 on a child when they are impressionable and capable of being redirected in a positive fashion? Or is it better to sit back and watch our kids continue to fall off the ledge of decency and go to a life of crime where we in turn reward them by taking care of them at a much higher cost?”

The changing times have altered the clubs mission from focusing on program development to development of the minds bodies and souls of the children. Leadership strives to teach these kids how to think positively and discover success.

The work is paying off. In 2006 the club was awarded a first place prize in arts and crafts in a competition that featured 4 500 contenders from across the country. The girls athletics teams have taken top awards in the state and the nation supported by local donors who raise funds to send them to Atlanta and New York. Kids are doing homework in the computer lab given a hefty boost by PPDs donation of hardware plus IT expertise. And theyre reading in the library which was supported by a $100 000 donation from the Charlotte Bobcats (due to Michael Jordans connection to the team).

Lofton and his staff know that academic success is the key to lifting these children up. To this end tutoring and homework assistance are critical to the mission of the club. Because of its commitment to academics the club was able to work with Dr. Sherry Broome a past principal of the Isaac Bear Early College High School to recruit students for its accelerated high school program.

But retention is not easy so to keep the kids in the program the Club uses the ultimate enticement: food. Many of the children have their last meal of the day during public school lunch. Knowing this the club feeds the kids using a sort of “stick and carrot” approach: Dinner is served out of the clubs commercial-grade kitchen after homework is completed and development programs attended. Attendance close to 300 kids during the school year prior to dinner being served increased to 900 because of the meals. The food is healthy and inexpensive. Whatever is available at the Food Bank shows up on the menu.

And this food gets shared with every child who attends. Among the headcount are kids from group homes in the area. Whoever contacts the club for help gets just that: help. If it involves children says Lofton “Its not even a question of whether were going to try and help. I mean we need help ourselves. You get help by helping others. Thats what I believe and thats what we do.”

The help extends beyond the front door. The club picks up and delivers the young people to and from their homes in public housing at no charge. Since 95 percent of the clubs participants are at or below the poverty level single-parent families limited private transportation if any this is the only way these kids can get there and back.

The connection with public housing was strengthened when United Way gave the club $40 000 to fund a program person to work directly inside the Creekwood Hillcrest and Houston Moore housing communities. With that immediate connection the Community Boys and Girls Club of Wilmington touches 800 to 1 000 children during the course of the year.

Lofton and his board of directors never seem to stand still. They have another dream project on the drawing board: a multi-purpose athletic field on a 12-acre lot next door. The land fills a need for the track and field facility that is sorely missing from the inner city. This “Field of Dreams” project is on the drawing board waiting for a commitment from the New Hanover County school system.

This passion for moving forward is part of the legacy passed down from the clubs founders from the middle of the last century. The challenges are different today but the mission is the same: to model success and to nurture it. Lofton keeps a picture of his mentor Mr. Bess in his office. The picture was taken at a ceremony where Mr. Bess received the clubs highest professional award. “I keep it on my desk to remind me of the mission and the goals of this club what its always been and what it should be ” says Lofton.