On a recent school day afternoon, the lobby of the Boys & Girls Club of Northern Westchester in Mount Kisco contained a bustle of activity. Cheerful-looking teens and adults wearing staff T-shirts greeted kids coming in and said goodbyes to kids leaving; an enthusiastic game of ping-pong was partially visible through the game-room window. Nearby, a young boy with special needs thoughtfully drove his toy yellow car along a table on his way out. A young woman in a pink headscarf walked down the hall past a complex, brightly-colored paper schedule affixed to the wall, toward a mother paying for swimming lessons at the front desk.
“Miguel, you’re matching all over today!” CEO Alyzza Ozer said to a boy whose sneakers, sweatshirt and backpack displayed the same green and blue. Down the hall, she asked another boy why he didn’t eat his mashed potatoes. “They’re so good!” she assured him.
Shantae Artis, director of volunteer programs at the club, was gathering signatures on several cards. “Yes, we write real thank-you notes,” she said, explaining that several local pizzerias had donated pizzas for a taste test and the Boys & Girls Club youngsters were expressing their gratitude the old-fashioned way. Artis was able to get everyone’s attention pretty easily, perhaps partially because the club has had a no-cell-phones policy for two years now. The only cell phones you’ll see in the halls are in the hands of parents coming to pick up their kids.
Ozer, a Chappaqua resident who grew up in Armonk, said at first, the teens resisted the policy –but now many express gratitude for it. “When we first instituted it, there was resistance,” she said. “But now the teens say, ‘thank you. Now there’s a part of the day when I can just enjoy myself and not be distracted.’” Technology is available, though, to groups of youngsters in the room where Power Hour is held, right across from the game room and around the corner from a busy kitchen and dining room where more than 80,000 meals are served every year. Homework is done, studying takes place, all assisted by adults, many of whom are bilingual. Some are staff members and some are part of the large volunteer contingent that is essential to the club’s operation.
According to Chappaqua resident Solveig McShea, director of community partnerships and fundraising at the club, “The club is a vibrant, welcoming and impactful place, where kids can just be kids. We need, however, the community’s help via financial and volunteer support to keep our programming running and to continue to help kids have the brightest possible futures.”
New Castle resident Dan Harrison volunteers to help with homework three afternoons a week. “I like to see the light bulb go off when a kid understands something they didn’t understand before,” he said. “We want the volunteers to have an equally valuable experience to the kids,” Ozer said. Then the experience becomes a partnership and the volunteers learn from the kids as well as vice versa. “There’s another world out there than what we see immediately around us.” Ozer is currently seeking, particularly, volunteers with expertise in the college application process.
The club serves kids ages 3-18 and their families, offering more than 40 programs including preschool, camp, swimming lessons, after-school care, volunteer opportunities and more.
The swimming program is, by any measure, stellar. Aquatic Director Dennis Munson, a club alumnus himself, has been with the club since 1969 and coaches the Marlins, a high-level swim team that’s consistently well-ranked nationally and has won the national Boys & Girls Club National Championships every year since since 2000. Marlins swimmers have been recruited to top colleges and make the pool atmosphere one where excellence is encouraged. Swimming instructors at the club employ innovative techniques.
More than 500 kids are served by the club every day. The children come from all over Westchester, primarily northern. Kids start trickling in at 7 a.m. and the last bus leaves just before the 9 p.m. close. Some of the kids from families below the poverty level, and others come very affluent homes.
All the youngsters who come learn there’s a wide world out there with all kinds of families in it, and are taught to value their community. “It’s not just a place,” Ozer said, explaining that many club kids spend many hours there for many years. In the process, many come to love the club, which is why so many staff and volunteers were ‘club kids’ themselves.
Tatiana Restrepo, 2017’s Youth of the Year at the club and now a freshman at Pace University, said, “This was my second home, my community.” “We have advocacy and leadership throughout the curriculum starting with 3-year-olds,” Ozer said. “What makes someone a great leader, able to advocate for their community? They need to be able to recognize their community and be grateful for it.”
Recently, younger children at the club made capes for children in the hospital. “They’re learning about empathy and gratitude and that not every kid is lucky enough not to be in the hospital,” Ozer said, and then the children act in response to that information. “All people, especially youth, learn leadership skills and empathy from giving back to the community.”
Older club kids have made trips to Albany and Washington D.C. to advocate for funding and legislation for various issues, and the club hosts various politicians to come talk to the kids, “so they know what a leader looks like and does.”
This training pays off into adulthood: Ozer said eighty-seven percent of kids who regularly attend Boys & Girls Club after-school programs are committed to giving back to their communities as adults. The club boasts other impressive statistics: Last year, 11 of the high-school seniors from the club were the first in their families to graduate high school in the US and go on to college. One hundred percent of the seniors continue on after high school to college or technical school, Ozer said.
Ozer had a career as an attorney in commercial real estate before turning her energies full-time toward her passion: the non-profit sector. “That was my passion,” Ozer said. “My extracurricular activity was always philanthropy.” For years, she served on the boards of various organizations while continuing to work in commercial real estate. “You get to a certain point in your life and you ask yourself, what am I doing and do I love it?” she said. “This is what I love doing and I’ve been extremely fortunate” to be able to make the transition, she said. Ozer also credits her mother for her interest in community service–she was a teacher who always stressed the importance of giving back.
The Boys & Girls Club of Northern Westchester depends on private donors and volunteers to do its work, Ozer explained. “There are a lot of extraordinarily worthy agencies, but the youth is really our future. Our work is essential,” she said. “That’s why I’m always excited to get out of bed in the morning.”
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