Boys & Girls Club of Cleveland gives urban kids a boost to become better students, citizens

[Karrie Motley studying at St. Luke’s  Boys & Girls Club. Photo by David Liam Kyle]

While Semeka Randall may not have earned the nickname “Hard to Handle Randall” until she was a standout defensive player for the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team, she was on her way to earning that moniker as an 8-year-old playing against the boys at the Boys & Girls Club of Cleveland.

“She grew up in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, and her mom was a single parent trying to raise her kids, keep food on the table and work two jobs,” says Ron Soeder, president of the Boys & Girls Club of Cleveland. Soeder cites Randall as an example of how the club helps young people reach their potential as productive, caring and responsible citizens.

Randall, a Trinity High School basketball star, went on to become a college coach.

“Her mom knew where Semeka was every day; she knew Semeka was with people who cared about her. Semeka got help with her homework, she got support from the club, and her mother didn’t have to spend a lot of money on day care,” Soeder says.

But if you ask Randall what was important about the club, she would say she learned how to play basketball against boys from the time she was 8 years old, Soeder says.

“She went on to be a two-time All-American at the University of Tennessee, she played in the WNBA and now she is the head women’s coach at Alabama A&M University.”

And Soeder proudly says Randall is just one of the 92 to 94 percent of kids in the Boys & Girls Club that graduate from high school.

Saving lives

It takes Soeder just a few words to succinctly describe the organization’s focus.

“We save kids’ lives,” he says. “We do that by providing them a safe and nurturing place to go after school and when they are out of school all summer long so they have access to positive role models and positive mentoring. We live to make a big impact in their lives.”

Soeder says what makes the mission live is to see the population the organization serves. Ninety percent of those families are at or near poverty level. Most are single-parent households, and 85 percent of the kids who attend the club are African-American and about 11 percent are Hispanic.

Boys & Girls Club takes a holistic approach to saving kids’ lives.

“First of all, we help our communities by making them safer,” Soeder says. “In our 12 locations, they each get between 125 and 150 kids a day in the critical time from 4 to 7 p.m. when crime is at its highest among young people. We have those kids off the street and we give them a safe place to go with people who care about them.”

Ten of the sites are in urban Cleveland, one is in East Cleveland and one is in Cleveland Heights. The club also provides kids with support in academics, character and leadership development and healthy lifestyles. The club served about 175,000 after-school meals last year.

When students arrive after school, the first order of business is their homework.

“If they don’t have any homework, we create opportunities for them to build their reading or math skills,” Soeder says. “We have daily arts programming — ballet, jazz orchestra, and vocal, dance, ceramics program and fine arts painting.”

Athletic leagues are offered year-round for sports such as volleyball, flag football, boys and girls basketball and baseball.

The organization is also developing work programs for high school juniors and seniors, and there is an urban farm on the club grounds through which students can learn an entrepreneurial regimen.

Building community

The club has a large board of directors — 56 members — to provide governing advice and strategic direction.

“You almost can name any company, and they will be represented on our board,” Soeder says. “They also provide corporate support and funding. One of our biggest funders in this program is Nestlé USA; we are a huge benefactor of that.”

Soeder says Boys & Girls Club of Cleveland is a $5 million business, and all but $8,000 is raised through philanthropy, including sources such as United Way, the George Gund Foundation and the Cleveland Foundation.

“We do charge kids $10 a year if they can pay it, and that’s where the $8,000 comes from,” he says. “Occasionally, we will rent space to another nonprofit. But we want to make sure we are viewed in our community as a resource.”

How to reach: Boys & Girls Club of Cleveland, (216) 883-2106 or www.clevekids.org