Tags: Enrichment, Featured Story, Parenting, Party and Entertainment, Tweens & Teens
Preparing tomorrow’s professionals, community leaders, artists, engineers and engaged parents is happening now in Kern County. Guidance, opportunity and caring supervision are all part of the learning process, and they are available to local children in purposeful ways through Boys & Girls Clubs of Kern County.
“My favorite quote when people find out about our services is ‘I had no idea,’ as related to the depth and the intentional creation of our youth development culture,” said Zane Smith, executive director of Boys & Girls Clubs of Kern County. “We are connecting to them as humans. The Club is for everyone. There is no poor kid, bad kid, that kid; we are here for everyone.”
When children do better and become productive adults, the entire community benefits.
Life skills every child needs, from character lessons and wise counsel to academic help, art lessons, sports participation, and more, are available through the organization open to all children. Some participants will be the first person in their families to attend college; others simply need supervision, a mentor, or a positive place to spend time.
Investing in our children’s future and, ultimately, our community’s wellbeing, is what takes place on a daily basis at the 68 Boys & Girls Clubs of Kern County locations each day for about 10,000 local students. A hearts and minds outreach program, its mission is “to enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, and responsible citizens.”
Boys & Girls Clubs of America received national attention during the pandemic for its steadfast care of children. Advocates continued to keep chapters open, show up for children, offer media interviews commenting on what they were seeing as schools closed and coordinate resources at a time when few agencies had the ability to do so. Kern County’s locations did exactly that, too. They never closed, even during quarantine’s weariest days.
“As far as our children were concerned, everything kept changing on them but we never did,” said Zane. “We donned masks, we learned about PPE, but with open hearts, open minds and open doors, we pivoted to provide certainty in children’s lives while so much was uncertain.”
Participation is not limited to household income thresholds or other demographic factors. Any school-age child, defined as 5 to 18, can take part in activities and more.
Safer childhoods, life-enhancing programs and access to consistent, qualified mentors are three major areas the organization identifies as part of its services across the nation and on the local level at more than 4,700 locations. School-based clubs, locations on military bases and dedicated centers are available to families for after-school care, school break programs, tutoring, access to child nutrition, and more.
“A lot of our kids do come from very humble circumstances,” said Zane, although he is always quick to point out that Boys & Girls Clubs both in Kern County and throughout the country serve children from all socioeconomic backgrounds.
As a non-profit, funding is made possible by corporate support, public and private grants, and the incredible generosity of local donors. Boys & Girls Clubs of Kern County employ more than 700 residents, with internships for young professionals. Scholarships cover the majority of the cost of attendance for approximately 92% of attendee expenses, which makes funding critical. There are no specific dollars allocated for attendance by children living in foster care, living in shelters, or experiencing homelessness.
Mentorship is a strategy that gives children a consistent, caring adult role model. Whether or not home is also a source of positivity and support, participants’ Boys & Girls Club location is something they can count on, with staff who express sincere care and interest in the child as an individual.
“Our goal is to make every kid feel like the most popular kid on campus,” said Zane. “We have all these protective factors built in through their participation experience. Resiliency and real grit will come to serve them later on. Later on, when our youth are at a crossroads, we hope they will reflect upon the love they felt. Our goal is to help them find a niche in our community, to be able to make positive decisions.”
Zane described seeing former participants return to serve as employees, often in mentorship roles, as a fulfilling aspect of his career, which spans more than three decades with the organization, 25 of which have been in Bakersfield. That longevity is particularly long for any career professional in the non-profit sector, which averages a national stint of just four years.
“You get to see the outcomes of your work,” said Zane about the renewed sense of hope he feels watching participants’ progress. “You see them grow up, see a child who may have struggled to gain equilibrium find a sense of self and watch them spread their wings. When that happens, you can reimagine the possibilities for their kids.”
Zane’s arrival in Bakersfield took place in July 1996. He and his wife, Amy, moved with their young son from Long Beach. They later welcomed a new daughter; both children are now grown. Amy is Bakersfield Museum of Art’s executive director.
When the Smiths were new in town, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Kern County consisted of one club and one van. Zane saw the potential for partnerships, especially in school settings already safe for children.
“Where there are kids, there’s always possibility,” said Zane. “We work with 14 school districts now. We are here for every child who needs us. Character, leadership, and social dynamics are part of our everyday experience. Every part of our DNA as an organization has disguised learning as part of it. I have learned so much from working with kids in school and non-school hours and I am so grateful to the afterschool program for extending learning during their day. We offer enrichment plus a sense of fun.”
Zane recalled a recent kitchen safety demonstration in which participants learned how to make healthy, nutritious snacks. They learned the basic skill of cooking for themselves and possibly siblings. Along with cooking safety, however, a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) activity helped make the lesson more tangible by the simple act of making painted toast part of the day, with margarine and food coloring.
“It wasn’t Einstein but it was memorable,” said Zane.
Making real-world impressions is key. Geology majors, for example, helped formulate a Geology Rocks program. Leveraging relationships helps children see possibilities in the world of work.
“Every child has to have a plan when they leave us,” said Zane, who considers himself fortunate to see participants move on to college, the military and other horizons. Some even return as mentors or employees at their former Boys & Girls Club location.
Regular attendance also results in better grades. Nationally, the organization reports 97% of its participants expect to graduate from high school, compared with 83% in the state of California.
Mental health benefits are also notable, but the pandemic’s full effects in that area remain yet to be seen. Zane, however, believes the results will be positive, just as they are with participants year in and year out.
“We made a difference in their education and social dynamic. As they go forward, our participants will be standing strong because they were with us and we were with them and we provided a support system where everything will be okay,” said Zane. “They will recognize how strong they are as human beings moving forward into adulthood.”
Zane always circles back to the work that takes place in impactful ways that is simply not known about as much as it should be in Kern County. He invites anyone who wants to see to come take a tour. What visitors see is surprising, but the results will continue to influence Kern County in public and private ways for generations to come.
Schedule a tour or find out more about the phenomenal work the organization leads at https://www.bgclubsofkerncounty.org/.