Youth at the Boys & Girls Club of the Cumberland Plateau build a Lego replica of the club.

Three thousand seven hundred and forty one. 

That’s the number of kids in Scott County that were impacted by the Boys & Girls Club of the Cumberland Plateau in 2018. It’s a number that Justin Sharpe, the club’s chief professional officer, is proud of. And it’s a number that’s increasing.

Through its partnering organizations, the BGC casts a fairly wide net. That’s why the overall number — 3,741 — is so big. But the BGC experienced trended upward in just about every way in 2018, including registered members and daily attendance.

“We serve many of the kids in Scott County here directly,” Sharpe said of the BGC. “If you get close to 1,000 kids, you’ve knocked a good dent in it. But when you factor in how many kids are impacted by back-to-school sales, Toys For Joy, the Bible release program . . . we like to think that, in some way, small or large, we have an impact on all the kids in Scott County.”

Strength in Numbers

Sharpe isn’t far wrong when he talks about having an impact on all the kids in Scott County. Many of them are reached through a category that the BGC terms “other youth served,” which includes activities sponsored through partnering agencies such as the S.T.A.N.D. Coalition or ALQI. Among them: The Christmas-time Toys For Joy distribution, RAM health clinics, and the annual back-to-school sale that is presented by S.T.A.N.D.’s Youth Service Learning Initiative. Then there’s the Bible release program, which is coordinated by Adam and Becky Fladie. The Fladies approached the BGC a couple of years ago about getting involved, and Sharpe jumped at the opportunity. The BGC provides buses and drivers to transport kids who take advantage of the program. 

Add all of those kids up, and the programs reached 2,278 youth in 2018, up from 1,876 in 2017 — or an increase of about 18 percent.

The BGC’s actual membership — “the traditional club kids, card-carrying members who walk through our door every day, pretty much,” Sharpe said — is also up, from 896 in 2017 to 963 in 2018. That’s an increase of about seven percent.

Then, perhaps the biggest thing: average daily attendance. It’s a major focal point for Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and it rose from 140 in 2017 to 169 in 2018, an increase of 17 percent.

“Around 2014 or 2015, our average daily attendance was around 120,” Sharpe said. “It stayed that way for a good long while. For me, I want to serve more kids and make sure we’re having as big an impact as we can on Scott County. I’m very happy we’ve got that number up.”

Average attendance is up even more to start 2019. Through last week, the average daily attendance this year is 194 — another 13 percent increase.

Incentives to Attend

One of the ways the BGC has focused on increasing its average daily attendance is by rewarding and recognizing kids — not just for what they do outside the club, such as achieving good grades in school — but also to create incentives for them to attend regularly. When its members attend regularly, the BGC can realize its full impact in terms of helping kids with academic growth, developing social skills, adopting healthier lifestyles and developing good character.

“We try to make these kids feel special that are here every day and attend frequently,” Sharpe said. “We probably see 500 to 600 kids a month, unduplicated. But you can tell a difference when you’ve got that average daily attendance of 150 to 160 kids. We have a good core group of 100 kids that are going to be here rain, sleet or snow, as long as we’re open.”

Looking Forward

Undoubtedly the most visible example of a Boys & Girls Club program is its youth basketball program, which will wrap up its 2018-2019 season this weekend. As for programs that are strictly for the club’s “card-carrying members,” as Sharpe put it earlier, a visible example of a recently-added program is the BGC’s mountain biking program, which saw the club team up with Oneida bicycling enthusiast Joe Cross and other volunteers and sponsors to purchase high-performance mountain bikes and safety gear for club members, while also constructing a mountain biking course on the club campus. 

But those are only two of many examples of programs that take place within the club. One that might not be as visible to the general public, but one that Sharpe takes special pride in, is the club’s technology program. It’s in that arena that a lot of effort has been made to bring about upgrades.

“We have volunteers from JDS Technologies who do a phenomenal job shoring up our infrastructure,” Sharpe said, referring to the Oneida-based manufacturer whose owners — Jerry and Diane Slaven — have taken a keen interest in the club and donated heavily to help sustain its operation.

But, he added, “We’re still at a foundational level. We can’t do everything we want to do. We can currently only handle about 10 to 15 kids on a computer at one time. Due to our bandwidth and limitations of our server, we just can’t handle any more.”

The BGC recently received a grant from the national Boys & Girls Club organization that is aimed at improving technology infrastructure at clubs in rural communities. Sharpe said the goal is to utilize those grant funds to build a working computer lab in each of the club’s program areas.

“We have three program areas, so we’ll have three technology labs,” he said. “Each lab will serve 15 to 20 kids simultaneously.” 

The BGC is also looking at providing a community computer lab, though it will come a little later.

“We feel like that’s a need in the community,” Sharpe said. “During the day, if we don’t have kids, people can come in and search the internet, print, things like that.” 

Sharpe also mentioned some even better news that is coming but cannot yet be announced, saying it will “basically be a game-changer for the way we can partner with the kids.” 

Sharpe is a technology buff himself, and feels its important to incorporate that into kids’ learning activities.

“We live in the digital age,” he said. “It’s really important to do some of this high-yield programming on computers and on the internet, and at the same time teach these kids internet safety, which is a big part of the program that the Boys & Girls Club offers. I’m really excited about that.” 

The upgrades in technology will enhance further growth of the club, Sharpe feels.

“It’s going to have a great impact, and also be something the kids will enjoy and that will keep them engaged,” he said. “I think it will get more kids into the club. I don’t see why it wouldn’t. We’re going to build around that. For example, we had a 3D printer donated last year and we’ve been utilizing that, and having all this technology upgraded will allow us to use that in a better way.”

Reaching Kids Throughout

Another area the BGC has advanced in recent years is serving kids in the furthest ends of Scott County.

The BGC is currently offering an off-site program in Robbins, with 100 registered members and an average daily attendance of about 50 kids. Held at Robbins Elementary School, the program is coordinated by Elizabeth Carroll, an educator at the school. Funded by a grant through the Department of Education, the program started with 50 kids and later grew to 100. Looking ahead to next year, Sharpe thinks it may be possible to grow the program again, which will allow even more kids from Robbins to join.

“This program is solely funded through that grant,” Sharpe said. “Those kids don’t pay a dime to attend the program.”

Because the program size is limited, the BGC weighs the need of each kid who is a potential member, focusing on things like academic gaps and free-and-reduced lunches. 

“You want to get the kids with the most need in the program,” Sharpe said.

The goal of the off-site program is to provide a BGC experience for kids away from the BGC.

“We try to keep it as close to a Boys & Girls Club experience as we can,” Sharpe said. “We don’t want it to be School 2.0, just another hour or two or even three of the school day. We’ve tried to bring a lot of equipment and activities down there so the kids can be engaged in fun things. Sometimes we take a bus and bring those kids to the club so they can get a full club experience.”

The off-site program was first attempted at Fairview, but didn’t quite succeed. However, Sharpe has prepared a grant proposal to re-establish the Fairview site, and hopes it will be successful the second time around.

“I’m open to expanding just about anywhere we can,” he said. “I’ve not shied away from growth. Whether the money is there or not, we’re just trying to do right by the kids and make sure we’re having the biggest impact we can on Scott County. And, usually, things fall into place. We’ve been blessed as we’ve grown.”

This article is the February 2019 installment of "Profiles of a Three Star Community," presented on the second week of each month by the Industrial Development Board of Scott County as part of the Independent Herald's Back Page Features series. A print version of this article can be found on page B10 of the February 14, 2019 edition of the Independent Herald.