The Boys & Girls Club’s after-school program for kids and teens in Benton has been facing a “good problem” it never has before because of the new building it moved into this summer.
Unit Director Cindy Hooker said the new building is at full capacity with about 80 students spending time there after school and even more expected to remain on a waiting list this school semester, further sparking the idea of starting a second unit in Polk County.
“Our attendance has increased drastically,” she said. “All the kids were really excited.”
Prior to being able to occupy its new building in June, the Benton unit rented space from the Mercy Tabernacle church in Benton. Now, the kids and teens have their own space to spread out and enjoy.
“People are recognizing us more as a Boys & Girls Club than as part of the church,” Hooker said.
The construction also allowed for a design that included rooms for different activities. An education room with shelves of books and educational games, a fully stocked art room, a room for snacks and meals, a computer lab and a room just for teens surround a central room filled with game tables begging for games of table tennis and pool to happen after homework is done.
Hooker said the build also allowed new safety measures to be put in place. A receptionist buzzes everyone in when they arrive at the door, and kids line up at iPad tablet computers mounted on the walls of many of the rooms to sign in and out of activities.
More windows let in more light from outside and help the staff keep better tabs on everyone.
Program coordinator James Grady said the new building makes it easier for the staff to do what it set out to do when the Benton unit was started six years ago.
“It’s a great opportunity to be able to serve the youth of Polk County with a home they can call their own,” he said.
For many kids, he added, it may seem more welcoming than their actual homes. He called it “a place of hope” and a temporary escape from home situations that might include problems like drug use and nasty divorces.
But the new building has created a “good problem” in that the Benton unit, which is the lone Boys & Girls Club location in Polk County, has already had to turn kids away because of the number of program staff, Hooker said.
She said that, for safety reasons, the program staff need to keep a ratio of at least one adult to 20 children or youth. That means the four program staff who work directly with the kids all the time need to work with no more than 80 at a time.
Back when the unit occupied space at the church, she said attendance averaged about 52 kids a day. Though just under the maximum number of attendees now, the number is set to swell to 80 as soon as young people already on an existing waiting list are cleared to join the club.
Membership in the club is $5 per year, and students must fill out an application to join.
The Benton Boys & Girls Club is one of seven under the Boys & Girls Clubs of Cleveland. Though it is under that umbrella, Hooker said the Benton unit has its own advisory council and receives some funding from the Polk County Commission, generally between $8,000 and $15,000 each year.
“We’re fully funded by grants, donations and fundraising,” she said. “Our community has been very good to us.”
Hooker said she had recently spoken to Polk County commissioners who lived on the other side of the county from Benton and would like to see a unit in Copper Basin.
That will be the club’s next goal for expansion in Polk County, she said — to see the kids and teens of Copper Basin have a Boys & Girls Club of their own.
She said the club’s goal is to see kids graduate from high school, be good citizens of their community and make positive life decisions.
The Benton unit started with local adults looking for a way to start a youth center and help make those goals a possibility for young people there. Hooker said they spoke with Charles Sutton of the clubs in Cleveland and found they shared the same goals, which led to the beginning of Polk County’s first Boys & Girls Club.
As the Benton club sees more kids and teens than ever before, Hooker said she welcomed further support from area residents.
“We’re always in need of volunteers,” she said — especially for assisting kids as they do their homework in the afternoons.
Hooker said she really wanted the unit and its new building to begin to have a prominent place in the fabric of the community. She said anyone is invited to make an appointment to tour the facility and see what they do. The facility can also be rented out for family-friendly community events, she said.
Donations of money and supplies are also welcomed, and an event to raise money for the unit will take place on Sept. 28 at the Ocoee River Barn from 6:30 to 10 p.m. The “Bluegrass and Barbecue” event will feature music artists Barefoot Nellie and Stormy and Adrian.
The club is located at 280 Campbell Road in Benton and is next to the Polk County Health Department. For more information, call 423-299-9057.