Above: (Photo by Hannah Esqueda) Members of the Boys & Girls Club of Merced County play games during a rainy afternoon. The Club recently received additional funding from the Merced City Council as part of a pilot program to open the center on Saturdays.
By Hannah Esqueda
MERCED, Calif. — For the first time in more than a decade, the Boys & Girls Club of Merced County is now open to local youth on Saturdays.
“This has been my goal for as long as I’ve been here, so basically for about 12 years I’ve been wanting this to happen,” said Tony Slaton, executive director of the center.
“It’s been the most frequently asked question I hear from our community, ‘why aren’t we open on weekends’,” he continued.
The Club is now open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays, and the new hours mean local kids have a safe, fun and supervised hangout space on the weekends, solving a longtime need in the local community, said Paul Milsap, director of operations at the Boys & Girls Club of Merced.
“It’s much more than just the facility though, it’s the people and the team we have here that we use to really make an impact,” he said.
The extended hours started in January and are part of a six-month pilot program approved in December by the Merced City Council. City officials have already touted the $12,000 project as a major investment in youth, and newly-elected Mayor Mike Murphy announced the weekend program to much applause during his State of the City speech late-last month.
“The Club is very resourceful in leveraging its funding, but hasn’t had money to open its doors on the weekend when so many of our young people could really benefit from the services that they provide,” he said.
The number of kids attending Saturdays at the club has increased every week since January, and Slaton said he has an eventual goal of serving 60 youth each weekend.
“We’re talking to existing members and trying to help get the word out,” he said. “We’re sending out flyers to local businesses around town and at some of the apartment complexes nearby.”
Youth from across the county are served at the Club and Milsap said many of its young members come every day.
“We’re open after school every weekday and all day when school is out. During school breaks and summer, we see some kids come in here from 7 a.m. to when we close at night,” he said.
The Boys & Girls Club is currently in the middle of a multi-year lease for the city-owned McCombs Youth Center on 15th Street in South Merced. The facility includes a full-sized gymnasium, computer lab, commercial kitchen and several activity rooms, all designed to serve local youth between the ages of 6-18.
Operational costs for the center run to approximately $400,000 annually, a sum that is funded through a combination of grants, private donations and financial support from the city and county governments, Slaton said.
“We’re encouraged that this was one of the first items approved by the new city council and we’d like to see that support continue,” he said.
The pilot program will be reviewed by the city council this summer and Club officials say they’re hopeful local leaders will continue their support.
“There is definitely a need in the community for this type of weekend program,” Slaton said. “We have a fantastic facility here built for the kids but it’s under-utilized.”
Milsap agreed and said he’s looking for ways to expand the Club’s offerings, including adding cooking classes and doing more field trips for teenage members. Last week, the organization started a new program designed to help build self-esteem for girls in fourth through sixth grade.
The “SMART Girls” workshops address topics such as bullying, body image and relationships to help prepare young girls for adolescence, Milsap said. A similar mentoring opportunity is offered for young men through the Club’s basketball program.
“We have positive role models with our staff at the center,” he said. “But right now, we’re a small group. We would need more people and resources and funding to really help grow the Club.”
While the pilot program is a great start, both Slaton and Milsap say they’d like to encourage the city to drive even more resources for youth development throughout the community.
“It doesn’t have to be just us. The whole community would benefit,” Milsap said.