The Boys & Girls Club of Corvallis (BGCC) is about $1.1 million off a $6.5 million mark that will enable construction of the anticipated Center for Youth Excellence. The ongoing project is a collaborative effort between the BGCC, the Benton County Health Department, and local mental and behavioral healthcare provider Trillium Family Services. Further support comes from community and school district members, and all involved are tackling “big, hairy, audacious” goals, as detailed by Helen Higgins, CEO of the BGCC.
Construction of the Center for Youth Excellence is slated to begin in the spring of 2017, followed by a grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony in the spring of 2018. The intention of the center is to help end generational poverty in Benton County through increased self-sufficiency, academic support, and mental health access to youth members. Beyond Corvallis, the center is envisioned to service all within county lines, but will not extend to Linn and other neighboring counties outside target range.
“We’re looking at how do we get as many teens across the county to get involved with employment services… because at the end of the day it breaks the cycle of poverty,” said Higgins.
Of the club’s 2,400 youth members, a substantial number suffer from generational poverty. In Corvallis, 30% of people live below the poverty level, compared with 22% in all of Benton County. In the neighborhoods that surround the BGCC, 72% live at or below the federal poverty level.
Currently, 65% of BGCC members are students of color or speak English as a second language. Fifty-two percent belong to single-parent households. These subcategories of youth are directly affiliated with low high school graduation rates, which we know to be a critical issue in Oregon. The club’s already making waves with its 100% graduation rate among its continued members.
Standing as Benton County’s only public after-school youth service provider, the Boys & Girls Club of Corvallis offers affordable access with a membership fee of $25 per year. And better yet, the new center will provide what Higgins understands her teens need most: time.
“We do a lot to sort of augment and provide more time to these kids,” said Higgins, noting the trend toward increased test-taking and accelerated academia in public schooling. Through curve pathways and taught self-sufficiency, plus mental health resources, the club will foster life readiness alongside emotional intelligence and well-being.
Student members will get a kick-start on building resumes and learning basic work skills through employment opportunities at the center’s anticipated student-run cafe. The center is expected to have two stories. On the bottom floor will be the cafe, along with a handful of classrooms, a club room, small-scale food club, gatekeeper area, and gymnasium that will connect to the club’s current one.
The second story will be a Student Health Center, filled with medical and dental professionals selected by Trillium Family Services and the Benton County Health Department. Trillium is a Capital Partner to the entire project, and will be fundraising for their top floor, giving them complete authority over the space and programming.
Higgins encourages movement between the two floors and units, but hopes the center will draw a larger high school crowd, who she suspects might shy away from current membership due to elementary connotations to the name “Boys & Girls Club.”
“What we really wanted to do was create some individual identity, but maintain connection,” she explained.
The long version of the center’s name will be the Dr. Ken Johnson Center of Youth Excellence, after Dr. Johnson himself, for contributing a sizable $1.25 million in funds for the center. Other large contributors thus far include the Starker family, donating $1 million, and the Duerksen family, pitching in $300,000. Higgins hopes the nickname “The Johnson Center” will gain traction and better suit the older age group.
Already a major contributor to the BGCC’s success, Dr. Johnson was the visionary behind the club’s current Johnson Dental Clinic, installed eight years ago. Similar to the clinic, Higgins expects increased access to health services for children and families through the Student Health Center. The center should alleviate long waiting periods and the stigma associated with going to see mental health specialists, given open access and integration.
“We don’t let the membership be a barrier to participation,” said Higgins. The club is known to target Medicaid members or families under OHP (Oregon Health Plan) but also offers scholarships to non-members—for example, those BGCC’s noticed showing up for services at the clinic without membership.
“We want to embed mental health experts in our environment,” said Higgins. By integrating these services in the everyday function and student routine, teens are expected to gain confidence and comfort. The effect should be similar to the club’s integration of Old Mill employees among their undergraduate-level employees.
Trained in detection and prevention, basic and crisis intervention skills, and therapeutic alliance, the integrated Old Mill staff have hugely contributed to the BGCC’s success, including an 80% drop in incident write-ups and a dramatic decrease in terminated membership—plus families are factored into the process so no that one is left in the dark.
Trillium will similarly integrate mental health experts and skills trainers, while maintaining distinction. “We are not the farm home,” Higgins explained; rather the BGCC will work with Trillium and the Benton County Health Department in partnership and shared learning.
Higgins stressed that the BGCC works alongside the school district as well. “They help us identify youth who will benefit from these services,” she said. Beyond that, Higgins has seen widespread community involvement.
“We know we can’t do any of this ourselves,” she admitted, yet Higgins expects “really positive outcomes, because we have this team of people, bold in vision.”
Higgins considers beating generational poverty a realistic goal—one which takes commitment, persistence, and considerable investment, but bears a capacity to change the lives of youth who systematically fall through the cracks. Being that the BGCC is a small-scale agency, Higgins takes pride in their ability to “do a lot of launch and learn,” evolving and expanding as need be to produce the best outcomes.
The Center for Youth Excellence will provide a safety zone for kids to have access to integrated healthcare and education from both private and public sectors. In “trying to build many advocates for kids who don’t really have a loud voice in our community,” the Boys & Girls Club will balance inward and outward focus, while providing accessible guidance.
“These kids have to put the work in. We bump them along, and provide resources, [but] at the end of the day, these kids have to believe and have to want to make these changes,” said Higgins.
By Stevie Beisswanger