Looking back on a decade of successes

Donald W. Mathis has left his mark on the county Boys and Girls Clubs

May 20, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

Donald W. Mathis dwells on the success stories.

And in 10 years as executive director of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Harford County, he has seen his fair share.

A Marine showed up at the Aberdeen club around Christmas with a fistful of miniature U.S. flags for the children. She wanted to spend time with the kids at the place she had called her second home.

A woman whom Mathis had tutored at the club called on the day she earned her badge as a New York City detective.

A man Mathis steered away from trouble and into community college wrote to say he had become a member of an elite Navy security force.

"For these kids, being ordinary is success," Mathis said. "These kids aren't the debate team captains or the National Honor Society members, but they are good young people who are looking for adults to show them the way."

This past week was Mathis' last in the job, after recently announcing he was stepping down. Under Mathis, membership in the clubs grew from about 750 to more than 3,200. When counting youths who aren't members but took part in club activities from time to time, the organization served more than 5,000 kids last year.

A location opened in Bel Air and a small site in Havre de Grace moved to a new building that included a room named after Mathis. Clubs already had existed in Aberdeen and Edgewood.

"We can't imagine this club without him," said Darlene Lilly, director of program operations, who has worked with Mathis for 10 years. "I have seen this organization grow and blossom under him. He has made his mark, not just on the clubs, but on all of Harford County."

Mathis, 59, will undertake a less stressful job as a consultant for community service agencies, much of which he can do from his home in Havre de Grace. But he will remain a presence at the clubs.

"I will be the helpful volunteer, and I will continue to donate time and money," he said.

Mary Barry, director of development, said she plans to rely on Mathis for years to come.

"I know he will continue to help us in whatever ways he can," Barry said. "He has gotten this organization to the place where we know what we can do."

In the past few weeks, Mathis packed the contents of his office at the Aberdeen club but continued raising money, lobbying legislators, writing letters to editors and supervising in the art room, gym or homework area. He has devoted his career to public service, arriving at the director's position after administering AmeriCorps and Conservation Corps programs for the federal government.

On a recent afternoon at the Aberdeen club, several children were making farewell cards for "Mr. Don." Most wished him good luck amid colorful pictures of spring flowers or rainbows. Tatyana Sawyer, 14, had made a lovely painting but was still musing on her message.

"He is always telling us we can do it and setting us toward the right way," she said. "I know we will get a new director, and I hope he will be just like Mr. Don."

Mathis, dressed in the club's signature navy blue sweat shirt, moved from the craft room to the gym, where he encouraged the smallest basketball players to play big.

"Take your shot!" he said.

In the hallway, he consulted with staff on items the club would sell at a weekend fundraiser. In the playroom, Mathis lost a game of pool to 9-year-old Darryl Smith. He had time to compliment a group of girls on their hairstyles and help another girl with her multiplication tables.

"If kids were not in here doing these activities, they might be outside getting into the bad stuff," he said. "They come here and feel respected. Every day, we see young people whose lives are becoming significantly better."

For a $5 annual membership, the club offers children ages 5 to 18 tutoring, anti-drug and anti-alcohol programs, computer and technology classes, work force development projects, art courses and field trips.

The pinnacle of all field trips took place last month, when members of the Aberdeen club attended the annual Easter egg hunt at the White House, at the invitation of President and Mrs. Bush.

"It was not about Easter eggs, but about our kids being on the White House lawn and posing for pictures with the first lady," Mathis said.

Mathis insists on surrounding children with as much adult attention as possible.

"These kids lack resources, and many are really struggling in awful home situations," he said. "When you add crunchers like gangs, drugs and alcohol to the equation, it complicates things even more. We are competing against guys with gold chains selling kids a bill of goods to get them into a gang."

Not all the kids who pass through the club turn out to be success stories - Mathis has lost more than a few, especially to gangs. But he refuses to dwell on failure. The majority of the children, even those coping with immense obstacles, want to avoid trouble. All they need is adults who care and are willing to commit resources, time and energy, he said.

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