By The Herald Editorial Board
As with many good ideas, it started simply; a military surplus Quonset hut was raised on an Everett Junior College athletic field in 1946 to give boys a place to hang out with friends; with adults available to coach sports and activities and provide support and guidance.
Now 75 years later, what became the Boys & Girls Clubs of Snohomish County has grown to serve more than 20,000 children in 21 individual club locations and 15 sites based at schools, providing meals; sports leagues and activities; summer camps; tutoring and programs for academic success, character building and citizenship; childcare and — still important — a place to hang out.
“The intention is still the same,” said the organization’s executive director Bill Tsoukalas recently. “The goals and missions are the same, to provide a safe place for kids with fun activities that allow them to have a positive influence in their lives so they can grow up and become future leaders.”
Jim Gaffney can’t claim to have been there from the start; he’s only 70, after all; but the Everett Boys Club was important to him and his seven siblings, not just during their childhoods, he said, but as they matured into adults and were encouraged by their parents to pick an organization to support with their time and efforts.
“The Boys & Girls Club came to mind,” Gaffney said, and as it has for many, his participation became a family effort. His sons have served on the organization’s board and his daughter has worked for 15 years at an Everett club.
The story is similar for Tom Lane, who spent many afternoons at the club “playing sports and hanging out” from the first grade on.
“I was there because my parents wanted to see how I would do there,” Lane said of his parents, Dwayne and Rosemary, who also modeled community involvement; Rosemary served as the organization’s first woman board member, beginning in 1990, Lane said. He has followed his parents’ example as a board member and chairman, serving three three-year terms, a tenure that assures continuity and fresh ideas, he said.
The organization has grown organically, at its own pace, said Tsoukalas. The club has never campaigned independently to open clubs; it let communities come to it, supporting fundraising, organizing state and federal grant support for building projects and organizing programs.
The organization, while carrying the Snohomish County name, actually extends beyond the county; and even the state. It’s the administrative sponsor for clubs in Island and Kitsap counties, as well as clubs in Eastern Washington and Oregon. And it was among the first clubs nationwide to partner with Native American tribes to sponsor and support clubs.
Its partnership with the Tulalip Tribes began in 1996, making the Tulalip club the first Boys & Girls Club in Washington state on tribal land, and only the sixth in the nation, Tsoukalas said. Other partnerships include clubs with the Lummi Nation, the Colville Confederated Tribes and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in Oregon.
The Snohomish County organization also stands out for its name change in 1982 to the Boys & Girls Clubs, recognizing the effort to include girls in its programs. It was a move that preceded the national organization’s name change by eight years.
While it’s been difficult to mark a diamond anniversary last year and this year because of covid restrictions, the pandemic has also put the organization’s vital work on full display, said Marci Volmer, the organization’s chief operating officer.
Particularly for children who struggled to make a remote connection with online lessons, the clubs have been open with WiFi connections and computers, along with technical support and supervision.
A Granite Falls club staff member learned of one family who was driving into town to find a WiFi signal and was spending five to six hours sitting in their car so their student could participate in remote learning, Volmer said. The family was directed to the Granite Falls club so the student could study more easily and staff could communicate with teachers and offer assistance.
The story isn’t unique, she said. Many kids have made the clubs a substitute school location during the pandemic. And the clubs have also been a child care provider for parents deemed to be essential workers who couldn’t stay home with their children, she said.
“I don’t know what a lot of kids would have done if we hadn’t had the clubs and staff there,” she said.
For a time, whether the clubs would be there was an open question. The Boys & Girls Clubs revenue dipped some 40 percent in 2020, Tsoukalas said.
“But we made the decision to keep clubs open despite the revenue loss,” he said. “And we have had some terrific support since,” from local, state and federal government aid as well as the community.
“Kudos to our partners. The cities helped with sharing funds and even smaller communities, like Sultan, Granite Falls, Monroe, Lake Stevens and Arlington, they all reached out and said they knew they needed to help our kids,” Tsoukalas said.
But credit the Boys & Girls Club, Gaffney said, with being able to stretch a dollar and do a great job feeding kids’ bodies and minds.
Lane recalls a national slogan from a few years back, perhaps from actor and former Boys & Girls Club kid Denzel Washington, that the most important time in a child’s life is every afternoon from 3 to 6; at the Boys & Girls Club, it’s a time of support, friendship and direction.
“We would invite potential supporters to come down at 3:30 in the afternoon and just watch the kids,” Lane said. “The kids would all come in with their buddies and share the day’s drama at school.”
Any time of day, a lot of good gets done over 75 years.