A natural partnership

With a common mission, Kiwanis and Boys & Girls Clubs have worked together successfully to serve kids for years.

Story by Julie Saetre

When Kiwanis International officially partnered with Boys & Girls Clubs of America and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Canada in 2007, it cemented a meeting of minds and hearts committed to improving the lives of children.

Kiwanis is dedicated to serving the children of the world, a calling reflected in the Boys & Girls Clubs mission “to enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens.”

Shanna Warren is chief executive officer of California’s Boys & Girls Club of Burbank and Greater East Valley, which was founded in 1995 by a group that included a member of the Burbank Sunrise Kiwanis Club. Warren joined the Boys & Girls Club in 2001 and served as the director of its first after-school program, so her perspective on the Kiwanis partnership has been framed by more than two decades of experience.

“Our missions are aligned, so it’s a natural partnership,” she says. “Your motto is serving the children of the world. We can’t reach that far, but that’s very close to what our mission is. When you can find a service club that has the same core values, it’s a great partnership.”

“I just can’t say enough good things about our partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs. They are all about kids, and so is Kiwanis. I think that’s the easiest and most beautiful thing.”

The admiration is mutual. Since 2009, Donna Ferracone, a member of the Kiwanis Club of Redlands, California, has organized her club’s participation in an annual back-to-school shopping spree for members of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Redlands-Riverside. It’s part of an ongoing relationship between the two clubs, one that Ferracone says works because of the Boys & Girls Clubs’ professionalism.

“The Boys & Girls Clubs (operation) is organized. They’ve got goals. They’ve got a very set organizational path with the kids. Their staff is excellent. They have good ideas.”

These Kiwanis clubs offer examples of how powerful the collaboration between the two organizations can be — for the adults working on both sides of the equation and, most important, for the young people whose lives they’re changing.

Making an impact in Toronto

In Canada, the Kiwanis Club of Toronto’s relationship with its local Boys & Girls Clubs stretches back almost a century — to 1921, when members established what is today the Toronto Kiwanis Boys & Girls Clubs in a church basement. Although the Boys & Girls Clubs incorporated as a separate nonprofit in 1992, the two groups remain closely connected, starting with the basics: The Kiwanians donate more than CA$300,000 annually through the Kiwanis Club of Toronto Foundation.

“It’s meant everything. The general operating funding that we get from Kiwanis is huge,” says Kathy Maney, director of finance and administration for the Toronto Kiwanis Boys & Girls Clubs. “We do a lot of very grant-based projects, where money is given to support specific programs with very specific ties to what the money can be spent on. The Kiwanis core funding gives us a little bit of flexibility to make sure we can keep our lights on, we can pay the hydro bill, we can do all those sorts of things. That’s been hugely important.”

The core infrastructure is key. The Toronto Boys & Girls Clubs serve 1,200 youth annually at four program sites, with opportunities for a fifth being explored. Kiwanis funding helps ensure that those clubhouses are open to provide afterschool and evening programs that incorporate physical activity, healthy eating and nutrition education, wellness and personal health support, literacy development, access to technology, experiential learning opportunities and more.

Greg Gary joined the Toronto Boys & Girls Clubs as executive director in July 2020. The former Canadian Football League player and University of Toronto football coach has more than 12 years of experience working in community organizations, including service to at-risk youth. So he knows the difficulty of finding support for much-needed programming — support that is even more crucial as the world deals with a pandemic and its economic fallout.

“The Boys & Girls Clubs (operation) is organized. They’ve got goals. They’ve got a very set organizational path with the kids. Their staff is excellent. They have good ideas.”

“Resources have become more and more scarce. And I think they’re going to get tighter and tighter,” he says. “(Kiwanis clubs) have an organization that can give you the resources to deliver programming. It’s invaluable.”

Kiwanis funding — from the Toronto club’s foundation and generous individual members — also helps Boys & Girls Clubs members pursue their goals through scholarships.

“We’re taking a look at some of these young people and not just supporting the first year, but actually supporting their journey through post-secondary,” explains Maney, “so we know that we get them to the finish line as well.”

Kiwanians also support an annual “hamper” (or basket) program, which provides holiday meals to families who otherwise couldn’t afford them. The funds are appropriately dubbed “happy dollars,” says Tim Simpson, the Toronto Kiwanis Club’s immediate past president.

“If you’ve got something good happening in your world, as you’re announcing it, you give a dollar or two. Every time someone has a birthday, they give their age equivalent in happy dollars. We try to be as positive and inclusive as we can.”

The Toronto Kiwanians give more than financial support. They contribute time as volunteers, grilling up burgers and spinning cotton candy at the Boys & Girls Clubs’ annual summer barbecue and overseeing bounce houses at the winter holiday bash. And on a day-to-day basis, the Kiwanians provide mentorship and friendship to kids who need the dependability of a caring adult in their lives. It’s about being “an impact person,” Gary says.

“It’s that one person who comes in and says, ‘You know what? You could probably survive at a university and get a degree. We’re going to make sure you make it through high school.’ Nobody’s really ever given them that hope yet. Those few words are so valuable to somebody who’s looking for hope.”

Family ties in Burbank

Like its Canadian cousin, the Boys & Girls Club of Burbank and Greater East Valley in California has been associated with Kiwanis from its start. In 1995, a member of the Burbank Sunrise Kiwanis Club joined a member of the Burbank City Council and others to launch the Boys & Girls Club in a converted firehouse. It wasn’t long until other Kiwanis members got involved — and stayed involved.

“We’ve never stopped giving,” says Donna Anderson, immediate past president of the Burbank Sunrise Kiwanis Club.

Fishing trip sponsored by the Burbank Sunrise Kiwanis Club

Over the decades, the Kiwanians have sponsored and chaperoned field trips to Disneyland, the circus, museums and fishing trips. About 10 years ago, they launched a K-Kids club at the Boys & Girls Club. As the Burbank BAGC has expanded to 23 locations serving 3,000 kids annually, the Kiwanians have purchased vans for transportation. Recently, the Sunrise club pledged US$25,000 to support the Boys & Girls Club capital campaign to purchase a building that will serve as its new, larger home base.

The two organizations work so well together in part because collaboration is a two-way street. A Boys & Girls Club staff member always belongs to the Kiwanis club. Shanna Warren, the Boys & Girls Club’s executive director, joined the Kiwanis club in 2001, when she first began working at the BAGC. When she left the morning club due to a conflict with her children’s school schedules, another Boys & Girls Club representative took her place — a pattern that has continued.

“We’ve all served as officers,” Warren explains. “We’re not just going to the meetings. We’ve been actively involved.”

The partnership with the Sunrise Kiwanians has been so beneficial that the Boys & Girls Club has reached out to two additional Kiwanis clubs, the Burbank club and the Glendale club. BAGC staff have joined those clubs as well.

“The Kiwanians, in my experience, want to roll their sleeves up, they want to get in there, they want to engage with the kids, they want to see the impact that they’re making,” Warren says. “So they’re excellent partners.”

Anderson and her fellow club members wouldn’t have it any other way.

“How are you going to know what the real kids of Burbank need if you don’t get involved with them?” Anderson says. “These kids know us because they see what we give to the Boys & Girls Club. They’ll always remember Kiwanis. And they will join eventually. I really believe it.”

Bonding in the Inland Empire

In 2001, P.T. McEwen became president and chief executive officer of California’s Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Redlands-Riverside — and a member of the Kiwanis Club of Redlands. 

For many years, the Redlands-Riverside Boys & Girls Clubs partnered with Mervyn’s, a California-based department store chain, to treat BAGC members in need to a back-to-school shopping spree. But in 2008, Mervyn’s filed for bankruptcy, and the Boys & Girls Clubs needed a new partner. 

McEwen’s fellow Kiwanians had already helped out with BAGC projects in the past, so the CEO approached them again, and the club immediately agreed.

The club now teams with Kohl’s, a U.S. department store chain. An area Kohl’s opens early for a shopping time exclusively for the Kiwanians and kids. 

Kiwanian Donna Ferracone organizes the event each year, recruiting volunteers and matching them with a child. For the 2020 event, the Kiwanians, along with some of their family members, helped 50 kids select new outfits. In the era of COVID-19, all shoppers donned face masks, used hand sanitizer and underwent temperature checks before hitting the racks. The shopping process, Ferracone says, can be humbling.

“Some of the things you hear, like ‘I’ve never had a new pair of shoes before’ or ‘You mean I get to buy my own underwear?’ Just things that really make you think. They’re kids that don’t get to experience some of the things that our kids and other kids get to experience all the time.”

As the event has grown, another Kiwanis club has answered the call to help. For the past decade, members of the Kiwanis Club of San Bernardino have attended the shopping spree. They sponsored an additional 30 kids in 2020.

The conversations between the adult/kid teams often are as valuable as the wardrobe selections, says Mark Davis, senior vice president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Redlands-Riverside.

“It builds a close bond in the relationship, and it gives an opportunity for the Kiwanian to not just know that they’re doing something, but they’re doing something that makes a big difference in a child’s life. Because that child is going to remember that for the rest of their life.”

Elizabeth Silvius is immediate past president of the San Bernardino Kiwanis Club.

“I’ve enjoyed meeting the children when I have helped with this event,” she says, “and love talking to them about what they are excited about in the coming school year. This year, I shopped with a young girl who loved math, which is what I studied in college, and it was fun to give some encouragement to a future female mathematician.”

The experience is so moving that some Kiwanians go above and beyond the US$100-per-child budget.

“A lot of the Kiwanis members are generous,” says McEwen, who served as the Redlands club president in 2019-20. “Kids might go over (the spending limit). And it’s very, very common for a Kiwanis member to just pull out their credit card and pay the balance.”

Neither Kiwanis club limits its involvement to the shopping spree, however. For example, the Redlands club has supported the Boys & Girls Clubs summer camps and other programming, provided Thanksgiving meals to BAGC members and worked craft booths at fall festivals. The club also sponsors a K-Kids club at the Boys & Girls Clubs. In San Bernardino, Kiwanians have helped with BAGC transportation and made monetary donations. In 2020, social distancing requirements have also inspired them to get creative.

“At our division installation, which our club hosted virtually, we held a trivia contest to get to know our new lieutenant governor, Rex Ramsey,” Silvius says. “We collected donations from our members, and the winning trivia team was allowed to designate a charity in the area to donate the money to. The winning team chose The Boys & Girls Club, and we sent them a $250 donation.”

It’s just one more example of what happens when two groups with complementary missions merge their passion, talents and support.  

“I just can’t say enough good things about our partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs and the way that we’re able to help kids,” says Ferracone.

Concludes McEwen, “Boys & Girls Clubs are all about kids, and so is Kiwanis. I think that’s the easiest and most beautiful thing.”

This story originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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