The key to teaching young people to be the leaders of tomorrow might be found in a program run by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
The national Keystone Club helps 14- to 18-year-olds build character and leadership skills.
"It's the ultimate teen program to inspire teens to be leaders in life," Bluffton Boys & Girls Club teen director and Keystone Club adviser Jaala Smith said.
Smith oversees the Bluffton club's Keystone Club, which has had a busy year. The club has won awards and its members have toured colleges and helped others in the community.
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There are other Keystone clubs in Beaufort County. Beaufort Boys & Girls Club unit director Sam Burke said his club is working on getting its club running again. It's been about five years since they had an active club, and he hopes to have it going again around Thanksgiving. Hilton Head Island Boys & Girls Club assistant unit director Laura Vogel said there is a Keystone Club, but the kids are focusing more on technology.
Bluffton's Smith said the four aspects of the Keystone program are: academic success, community service, career preparation and teen outreach.
Each Keystone Club is ranked by Program and Youth Development Services at the national Boys & Girls Club headquarters at one of three levels -- basic, silver and gold, with gold being the best. Smith said her group is gold. She said clubs can earn their way to gold by excelling in the four aspects of the program. Every time the club completes an activity, members log the information on a national website.
For the academic portion of Keystone, Bluffton club members meet every other week with Bluffton High School guidance counselor Kelly Homan, who explains their options after high school. They have also taken field trips to various colleges, including Armstrong Atlantic State University, Savannah State University, Spelman College, Morehouse College, the Technical College of the Lowcountry, the University of South Carolina Beaufort, Winthrop University and the University of Miami.
To get kids thinking about their career options, guest speakers -- often members' parents -- visit every Thursday to talk to them about their own careers. The teens also get some real-world experience by working at area businesses. Last year they worked at the O.C. Welch car dealership. And over the summer they attended Camp Old Navy at the Old Navy store in Bluffton, where they spend a half workday doing everything from checking out customers to stocking and putting away clothes.
And for the community service part of the club, members collect food and clothing for needy families in the area. For the past two years they have held Thanksgiving food drives and given the donations to parents of Boys & Girls Club members. They are holding a clothing and canned food drive now and splitting up donations between the club families and Bluffton Self Help. The kids also held a diaper drive earlier this year for Bluffton Self Help.
In addition to collecting donations for the needy, Keystone members tutor younger Boys & Girls Club members. They also clean up McCracken Circle, where the club is located, every other month as part of the Adopt-A-Highway program.
The club meets every Wednesday to discuss where they are in accomplishing their goals and to plan what they need to do. But it's not all hard work and no play for these kids. For the teen outreach part of the club, members get to invite friends to parties and other events, such as the teen lock-in set for Friday.
"We want more teens because once they actually come through our doors and they stick with us, they understand that it's not a baby-sitting club," Smith said.
The local club has won a few awards recently. In October it was honored with the 2011 Southeast Regional Academic Award of the year at the regional Keystone conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Smith was awarded the 2011 Southeast Regional Keystone Advisor of the Year award. The teens even won a few competitions at the conference. The boys won first place in a basketball game. The girls took second place in basketball and volleyball.
Smith said the kids love going to the conferences, especially the national ones. Part of that excitement is over the Boys & Girls Club alumni they might run into at such an event. Actor Denzel Washington and musicians Ashanti and Usher have all been spotted in the past. She said last year her group saw Ashanti on stage and interviewed the band Mindless Behavior at the national conference in Orlando, Fla.
"You never know which celebrity will be there," Smith said. "So they go crazy about getting there."
But there's a catch. Smith expects the teens to keep their grades up if they want to go to the conferences. As long as they keep up the good work, the group will be making a trip to Fort Worth, Texas, in March for the national Keystone conference.
Another big plan for the group is to charter a second Keystone Club in Bluffton. The national organization limits each Keystone Club to 15 members. The Bluffton Keystone Club is up to 22 members.
Bluffton Boys & Girls Club director Molly Smith said Keystone teens at her club have worked hard and had some great experiences through the program.
"When we're talking about measuring the outcome of the programs and the effectiveness that Boys & Girls clubs have on our members, that's just a true impact right there," Molly Smith said. "These are lifetime memories."