After renovating an old abandoned building, countless hours of work and dedication, the Boys and Girls Club is now….

By Gus Bode

School had been out 10 minutes when the bus pulled into the parking lot of the former Carbondale Community High School. Screaming children spilled out of the bus and ran down the bus steps, across the lot and up those leading into the Boys and Girls Club.

One by one, they run their IDs under a scanner to check in, hang up their belongings and jaunt downstairs to the game room.

Bus after bus pulled in, and the downstairs slowly filled. The little feet of the children, ages six to 12, scampered from the game room to the computer area and around the basement. Released from the confines of school, the children were kids again.

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Bryan Gottschalk stood behind the snack counter, handing out chips and granola bars. The children, in a mass about 20 strong, hollered at him, “I’m next!”

If the snacks aren’t delivered post-haste, Gottschalk knows chaos could ensue.

Sept. 16 was a day for celebration. About 70 children were there, in a way, for an early birthday party for all of them. In three days, the club, which many there had learned to call “home,” would turn one.

When the property at 250 N. Springer St. was purchased in July of 2004, the old high school was in shambles. Dust, dirt and graffiti covered nearly the whole building, said Executive Director Randy Osborn.

After three months of work, which cost nearly $300,000, the Boys and Girls Club was operational.

“It went from an empty building to what we have now,” Osborn said.

What they have now is a two-story brick building painted vibrantly inside, with new carpet, superb computer equipment and a chance for many to succeed.

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Most of the equipment was either donated or was overstock furniture purchased for pennies on the dollar from the University, Osborn said. Because of donations from Ashley Furniture in Carbondale, the children even have leather couches to lounge in the snack room. Using grant money, they were also able to purchase 10 new computers connected to high-speed Internet.

Osborn said the annual budget after the first year is $260,000, which is funded by private and corporate donations and grants. Local and federal grants account for 50 percent of the budget, but after that, the community donates the rest, Osborn said.

“Community support is critical for our future,” he said.

The membership fee is $12 a year per child, which brings in less than $7,000 a year from more than 500 members.

Celebrating the one-year anniversary

At one station, a group of children played “pin the child on the club.” Pin the child on the club, which mimicked “pin the tail on the donkey,” used one child as the pin and tried to put them closest to the club on a Carbondale map.

Across from the room, another group wrapped presents. They were no gifts inside, though. They wrapped each other in white paper and placed red bows on another’s head. Amid the laughter, they opened each other up.

Upstairs, the real crowd pleaser was about to begin.

On the ground, red, orange and green balloons filled the gymnasium. Off the middle of the gym floor, three piatas, hanging in the air, was smashed into pieces, releasing a few pounds of candy onto the ground.

Like rugby players in a scrum, the children dove onto the ground, gobbling up as much of the candy as possible. Children left the pile with handfuls of goodies.

About then, Program Director Josh Cross signaled for a break, “Line up. It’s time for smores.”

They didn’t need to be told twice.

Before Ta’Treya Campbell started attending the Boys and Girls Club last December, she was introverted and hardly left the house, her grandmother Gale Campbell said.

After a couple months, Ta’Treya’s life changed for the better, Gale Campbell said. Her grades improved and her social skills showed drastic improvement.

“This is her life now,” Gale Campbell said.

Jackie Walk, a staff member and SIUC student, said during the summer session, the children refined their social skills, saying, “You can really tell that they can share and get along.”

“By having different programs, it really opens their eyes, and they see they don’t need to fight, but rather work through the situation,” Walk said.

Programs include exercise activities, such as basketball, wiffle ball and floor hockey. To improve culinary skills, the club sponsors cooking days on Wednesdays, where they learn to cook meals for their family.

Shaneice Bufford, a 10-year-old, said she has learned to make omelets and does it every chance she gets.

But for some children like Queniece Goodwin, the Boys and Girls Club is a place to spend time with friends and learn how to get along with everyone.

“We get to explore ourselves by teaching us the consequences if we are bad,” the nine-year-old said.

The staff takes bad behavior seriously:The children can be verbally warned or be sent home for a couple of days. Just as much, good behavior is rewarded generously.

Once a month the staff members give away awards for best attitude, boy and girl of the month, fitness and noticeable improvement. They are presented with certificates in front of their peers.

For Jordan Pratt, the reinforcement has worked well.

The 11-year-old has attended The Boys and Girls Club since the opening and said the club has taught him to be a better person. Pratt said if someone took something of his before he attended the club, he would resort to violence. But now, he walks away and doesn’t let the situation escalate.

Dzierzynski Wilson said she uses learning techniques from her past teaching experiences to bring out the best in children. Before the club opens daily, she works at Touch of Nature, teaching team skills.

After game time, she asks the group questions about how well they worked together during the exercise.

“It digs further so they can realize how cooperation and teamwork play into life situations,” Wilson said.

With one year down, Cross said the future of the club rest with the children.

Cross said as a native of southern Illinois, he has known these children since they were babies, and making sure they succeed is at an utmost concern for him.

Gottschalk, the overseer of the teen center, said watching the youngsters grow and mature right in front of his eyes is satisfaction on its own.

“It’s one of the few jobs where you can go and play at,” Gottschalk said.

Watching children play freely is all Cross needs for motivation.

“It’s the faces, the love, the drive, the passion,” Cross said. “That is my fulfillment, not the paycheck.”

Reporter Matthew McConkey can be reached at [email protected]

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