Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Thursday, January 10, 2013
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Club toughs it out in difficult times
Boys Girls Club gains one facility, faces loss of another

Big Brothers/Big Sisters is gone. The local YMCA has bitten the dust.

But in the face of budget cuts, an uptick in demand, and the imminent loss of crucial facilities, the Southernmost Boys Girls Clubs in the USA somehow manages to keep moving forward.

"We're really the last place kids have to go to for after-school activities," said Dan Dombroski, who's served as the program's executive director since 2002.

"And this is the perfect location right here," he added, referring to the organization's clubhouse in Bayview Park.

In addition to the Key West facility, the club also runs a smaller operation out of the Stiglez House on Big Pine Key -- and it is in the process of expanding.

Unfortunately for Dombroski, the club's board, Key West Unit Coordinator Sue Kent and, of course, the boys and girls who benefit from the program, there's a dark cloud hanging over the horizon: the pending conversion of Glynn R. Archer Elementary School into Key West City Hall, set to begin in five months.

The club uses that school's gym and cafeteria when the number of participating kids swells past the capacity of the Bayview Park building, which is rented from the city for $1 per year. But the club pays the Monroe County School District $100 per day for the use of the Glynn Archer gym and cafeteria during the summer, and $344 per month for the year-round use of a small building behind the gym.

"Usually we have about 120 kids every day in the summer," said Dombroski, "mostly from low-income families. They need a place to go. For many of them, this is their only option."

On a good summer day, the club provides a full schedule of activities, including arts and crafts, sports, dance lessons, and field trips to such attractions as the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, Higgs Beach, and the Dolphin Research Center in Marathon. They even get in a fishing trip, here and there.

Though the club's program is geared toward fun and games, there's also an emphasis on core values such as inclusion, collaboration, empowerment, respect, and character and leadership development.

In the summer, clubhouse doors are open from 7:45 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and the participants receive free breakfast, lunch, and two snacks daily.

During the school year, the club is open after school, from 1 to 6 p.m., with staff providing the kids help with their homework, computer lessons, sports and other recreational activities. A free snack is served.

Fees are on a sliding scale, costing a maximum of $50 per week for after-school activities during the school year, and no more than $90 per week in the summer. Mindful of stretched household budgets, the club offers a 50 percent discount to siblings of club participants. Kids over 13 may attend free.

The low prices are made possible by contributions from city, county and federal governments, the national Boys & Girls Club organization, the United Way, and, from the club's major fundraiser, held each May at Margaritaville. The club has also received funds from the Battle of the Bars, and the Key West Bar Stroll.

"It's all part of the culture of living down here," Dombroski said. "Those people have all been very generous with us, and we're glad they're here to help."

The organization also receives indirect funding from the state.

Besides Dombroski, who shuttles the kids from their schools to the clubhouse, and Kent, who manages the day-to-day routine in Key West, a crew of up to six part-time staff, many of whom started out as participants in the program, supervise the youngsters. Participants range in age from 5 to 14. An army of volunteers of all ages helps out with the homework and computer classes.

Teenagers, who technically qualify for participation in the club until they're 18, have drifted away from the program since the county took back a South Roosevelt Boulevard building the Boys & Girls Club was using for teen dances, five years ago.

"To do a teen program these days, you really need a top-flight facility," Dombroski said. "Just having a dance doesn't cut it anymore. Besides, that building was in pretty bad shape anyway. It wasn't the Taj Mahal. They use it for storage now."

Though older teens don't come to play at the clubhouse anymore, they are represented in the ranks of the supervisors. Millie Hernandez, 18, was 15 when she first took part in Boys & Girls Club activities. After a time she became a junior staff member, a plan through which the club employs four to six kids under the age of 16 during the summer.

Now, Hernandez has returned to the club as a regular employee, and is happy to be in a position to give something back to the program.

"My favorite part of the job is being able to play with the kids," she said. "It's good to see they're playing with friends and having fun."

It's easy to understand Dombroski's concern about the imminent loss of some of the club's facilities.

The Key West clubhouse, though cramped, is ideally located just steps from a softball field, tennis and basketball courts, and other park amenities. It's also got its own bathrooms, is just a stone's throw from the Montessori Charter School and, for now, Glynn Archer.

"Ideally we'd like to expand this building," Dombroski said. "We've had an architect look at building a second story, but we're not sure how HARC would feel about that. We had some problems with them one time we were trying to paint a mural on the side of the building. And there has been talk about building a community center on Trumbo Point forever. That could be a solution, but it hasn't happened yet."

In contrast to the uncertainty surrounding the club's future Key West operations, the Big Pine facility is about to get a shot in the arm.

Through an informal merger with the Big Pine Athletic Association, the Boys & Girls Club will be taking over the Skate Park and Blue Heron Park, with an eye towards transforming the park building into a teen center, which will operate Friday and Saturday nights. To that end an open house will be conducted from 7 to 9 p.m. Jan. 25 at Blue Heron Park. The public is encouraged to attend to learn more about the club's plans for the future, and to register their children. The club will continue to use Stiglez House for after-school and summer programs for younger children.

"With the development of an additional program and resources for teens, we hope to be in the position to offer year-round positive alternatives for youth between the ages of 5 to 18 in Big Pine," Dombroski wrote in a letter to The Citizen.

Big Pine Key Unit Director Cece Williamson said the club has already been using the parks, so the "annexation" of them is a natural development.

"It's like an extension from what we have already," she said. "Before, all the kids, including the teens, were using the same place (Stiglez House), and that's really not the way it should be. Now that we have the Blue Heron facilities, the middle schoolers and high schoolers will have somewhere to go."

Besides the Friday and Saturday night teen activities, Williamson said the club will open up Saturdays for pre-teens, for a few hours.

"It's a place to hang out, instead of out on the streets. That's what these children need on Big Pine. We'll have trips going bowling and to the movies and stuff. We'll be providing a safe environment for teens to hang out and be teens. I'm really excited about this. I wish there had been something like this when my girls were younger."

Back in Key West, Dombroski is cautiously optimistic about the future.

"I've reached out to the School District and the city, and we're supposed to have a meeting this month to address this," Dombroski said, referring to the Glynn Archer gym/cafeteria conundrum. "They've both been very supportive, so I think it's going to be successfully resolved. I'm really hoping that we can continue to have a space to do what we're doing."

tschmida@keysnews.com

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