"Mike" first came to the Boys & Girls Club at age 6, a child of divorce who had bounced around a lot in his short life. He began getting in trouble at school, and club staff members went to hearings and meetings with school counselors on his behalf. Then he began getting in trouble at the club and was suspended, but he always begged to come back. "I need this," he told the staff.
"We hung in there with him, and today (at 16) he's become an amazing young man," said Anne Walker, director of the Jasper Boys & Girls Club. This year, Mike was elected president of a prestigious teen group within the club, and he has begun making club-sponsored visits to colleges.
"He keeps thanking us for standing by him," Walker said.
"If it wasn't for us, he'd surely be in a juvenile detention facility by now," she said.
Stories like this abound at each of the five clubs in Beaufort and Jasper counties, said Chris Protz, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Lowcountry.
"For me, one of the best parts of being involved in this organization is when our kids become adults and come back to tell us how important their club was in their lives," he said.
Here in the Lowcountry since 1986, the clubs have served 1,900 youth members, ages 6 to 18, each year with after-school and summer programs.
We all know the Boys & Girls Club is "a safe place for kids" to learn and be nurtured, but Protz said another key aspect for children is the availability of relationships with caring adults -- professional, trained staff members who are hired as youth workers, as well as carefully prescreened volunteers who help children with homework, coach sports or teach in their areas of expertise.
Homework help goes with the first of three goals for Boys & Girls Club programs: academic excellence, which includes staying on through high school graduation and being ready for college, a job or the military, Protz said.
Second, members are guided toward a healthy lifestyle, learning to make good decisions about fitness and eating, with healthy snacks provided daily at all locations.
The third goal is building character. "We want our members when they leave us to understand that things like community service and voting are important," Protz said, noting that clubs provide leadership opportunities in small groups and special interest clubs within each local club.
Many members come from low-income families; at some clubs, about 95 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch programs, Protz said.
For more information on Lowcountry Boys & Girls Clubs, visit their website at www.bgclowcountry.org.
There are a number of ways you can help our local youth through the Boys & Girls Club. To volunteer, call your local club: Beaufort, 843-986-5437; Bluffton, 843-757-2845; Hilton Head, 843-689-3646; Sheldon, 843-846-9911; Jasper, 843-717-1615. Ask for the unit director and tell him or her of your interests and skills. Of course, you'll need to undergo a background check before you begin volunteering.
Also, as a United Way agency, Boys & Girls Clubs of the Lowcountry will receive a substantial investment from United Way of the Lowcountry's annual campaign. To pledge or for more information about United Way and how you can contribute to the campaign, call 843-982-3040 or visit www.uwlowcountry.org.
Children like Mike will thank you.
Marge Barber is a retired journalist, community volunteer and former director of communications for United Way of the Lowcountry.