Woes Behind It, Club Eyes Building

COMMENT

January 31, 1993|By MIKE BURNS

The Harford County Boys and Girls Club is drawing up plans for a new multi-purpose center in Aberdeen.

All it needs is a site and about a million dollars or so.

"We're committed to having a building in Aberdeen, it's very close to reality," said Jerry Lacey, president of the club's board of directors. No doubt about it.

That spirit of optimism might not seem so unusual in an organization that has provided so much hope nationally to so many children through its after-school and summer programs.

It's a success story that has played an important role in the lives of youngsters, particularly those from underprivileged backgrounds.

But the Aberdeen club has seen more than its share of setbacks since it was founded in the spring of 1990.

The club ran out of money, it became a political issue, the executive director was dismissed, the United Way and corporate sponsors backed out.

It culminated in December a year ago, when the club was quickly closed without notice just days before the planned Christmas party. The treasury was nearly depleted, and the membership had plummeted from a peak of 400 youths the previous summer.

Charles "Chip" McGough, the club's first director, was asked to resign. The club could no longer afford to pay his salary, and persistent criticism of his management inhibited potential donors, Mr. Lacey explained. The club was not following the national organization programs, either.

Mr. McGough blamed his difficulties on political machinations and unrealistic expectations of the club's board of directors.

He was credited with developing activities for youths, but was faulted for not doing enough to raise outside funds for the $75,000 operating budget and for using high school students as counselors in lieu of adults.

Mr. Gough argued that his removal "was in reality a political move to provide a scapegoat for the board of directors and [town] commissioners' failure to secure resources to meet their responsibility."

From the beginning, the so-called countywide organization was firmly tied to Aberdeen, which provided part of the budget.

The town commissioners were among the club founders and sat on the board of directors. Because of the commissioners' involvement, the health of the club became a political issue. Several commissioners openly criticized Mr. McGough for mismanagement, while the rest of the board was silent.

A couple of significant grants from the United Way failed to materialize, and the weak economy dampened the enthusiasm for business donations.

A baseball clinic given by the Ripken family generated a lot of interest, but the proceeds were already earmarked to pay overdue bills.

The resulting public controversy finally became too much and the club shut down for a six-month hiatus.

In June, the club reorganized and hired Tony Coffield from Baltimore as its new director. Summer programs attracted twice as many youngsters as they did a year earlier. The budget went up, the membership bounced back to about 300, the organization looked to expand.

Mr. Coffield thought the club had found a new home in the Aberdeen Middle School last fall, after using the Halls Cross Roads Elementary School facilities since its founding. But school officials raised objections and the plan fell through.

"That just made us more committed to getting our own building," Mr. Lacey said. "The Halls Cross Roads staff just couldn't have been nicer, but you get tired of always being a guest."

The club's directors have formed a building committee and a capital campaign committee. Preliminary architectural plans have been drafted for a center with a gym, craft shops, study hall and community rooms. Meanwhile, the club has already received major donations from the Aberdeen Rotary Club and Ronald McDonald Charities.

For the time being, the club will remain rooted in Aberdeen within walking distance of public housing projects, Mr. Lacey said. "There is a definite need in this area, which is the lowest socio-economic place in the county," he added.

But the club hopes to expand its membership and programs to other sites in Harford County, developing cooperative activities with schools and other organizations.

Although its mission is to serve children from 6 to 18 years of age, Mr. Lacey said the new center could be used in off-hours by senior citizen groups and for child day care.

He pointed to the possibility of some major grants from federal sources and foundations, and said the club was hopeful of receiving a donation of land near Halls Cross Roads to build the center.

The Boys and Girls Club is more than just an after-school place for sports and activities. Its Homework Club and mentoring programs help youngsters to help themselves in school. The activities are structured and separated by age groups.

"We don't just roll out the basketballs and let them go," Mr. Lacey noted.

Bricks and mortar alone won't build a successful club.

It will still take the determination and dedication of the community. But a new center rising in east Aberdeen will certainly provide needed momentum for a worthwhile organization that is a tribute to optimism.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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