Boys & Girls Club grows in F'ville

By Reggie Ellis

FARMERSVILLE-The sanctuary of the old United Methodist Church in Farmersville is eerily quiet.

Besides several pianos crowded near the altar, the rest of the room remains as it did during the last service, the programs still collecting dust from March 2003 when the church was abandoned. The faint voices of children can be heard playing, like ghosts from a lost congregation.

Then the side door of the sanctuary opens and the rest of the church is alive with children running into the kitchen for snack time.

The church was resurrected on Jan. 11 when it was re-opened as the Farmersville Boys & Girls Club. Twelve kids showed up on the first day without any advertising or promotion. As of last week, the club had grown to 70 members, and still, a dime has not been spent to promote the club or advertise its services to parents.

"We really didn't have the staff to handle this many kids when we started so we didn't want to advertise," said Joe Engelbrecht, executive director of the Exeter Boys & Girls Club, who is working with Farmersville as an advisor for hiring staff and laying the groundwork for the new club. "Now we have the staff to accommodate about 100 kids."

Engelbrecht said the Farmersville Club has an agreement with the Exeter Club to help them get started. However, Engelbrecht said the two clubs are financially independent of one another.

"Every dollar raised in Farmersville stays in Farmersville, and every dollar raised in Exeter stays in Exeter," he said. "These are two separate clubs."

Engelbrecht was approached by Farmersville City Councilman Paul Boyer and a representative from United Way of Tulare County in late November to discuss opening a club to replace the loss of the Farmersville Youth Center. Opened in offices at the Stockmen's Bank Building in 2002, the youth center served as a literacy program to help improve test scores for struggling students. The stringent program offered little time for recreational activities and catered to elementary school-aged children. On July 1, 2004 the center moved to the 5,000 square-foot United Methodist Church, at the corner of Ash Street and Avery Lane across from Armstrong Park, with the promise of expanded programs and boasting a new computer lab with 15 stations. But by November the flagging program was running out of funding and was forced to close its doors on Dec. 21.

The Farmersville club inherited the former church, computer lab and instructional material. The club is almost entirely funded by a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) provided through the city. Farmersville has been one of the cities hardest hit by state budget cuts, which is why the growing city asked voters to approve Measures U and V, a sales tax increase and utility tax, to stabilize its General Fund, which primarily funds public safety and special projects such as youth activities. Only V passed, leaving the city to try again this November.

Since CDBG funds cannot be used for salaries, the city decided to give the grant money to the start-up club in order to provide educational and recreational programs for kids. Because of its depleted General Fund, the City of Farmersville was forced to make cuts to its youth sports programs, a void the Boys & Girls Club is also hoping to fill.

"We would like to eventually start some sort of youth league," Engelbrecht said.

The club will receive $5,000 a month for the next 18 months, which will also give the club necessary leverage to secure more funding through grants. Farmersville will also benefit from its demographics (70% Hispanic) to secure additional funding. As a Boys & Girls Club, Farmersville will have the backing of a national organization that serves more than 4 million boys and girls in some 3,400 locations throughout all 50 states. The affiliation, Engelbrecht said, makes Farmersville eligible for a piece of $86 million in grants passed down from Boys & Girls Club of America in addition to program and instructional material.

"They now have access to an organization with a 100-year track record of successful youth development," he said. "The national organization provides off-the-shelf program components that can easily be adopted and adapted to any given community."

Engelbrecht also has a proven track record with boys & girls clubs. Since taking over the Exeter club two years ago Monday, Engelbrecht has increased membership from 420 to 630. Daily attendance has increased from 130 to about 180. The club has also seen a physical transformation. The front lobby has been changed to include a check- in and out desk where backpacks can be safely stored, the multi-purpose gymnasium has been refurbished with a new ceiling and floor, the carpet and flooring has been replaced through most of the building, a library has been added, the media center expanded, computer, art, music and nutrition programs added, a courtyard for a teen scene is in mid-construction and preparations have already been made to develop an on-site Teen Center.

In the last few weeks, Engelbrecht has hired four employees including club director Sally Saunders, a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) case manager who used to work for Youth Vision, a program to help runaways and homeless children. Saunders said there are also two volunteers from the Visalia AARP Chapter, but many more volunteers are needed to make the club work. Currently the club offers homework assistance, computer games, fooseball, and outdoor play time, such as basketball, dodgeball and other blacktop games. Saunders said the club is in need of almost everything such as sports equipment, tetherballs, art supplies, costumes for plays, board games, garden hoses, etc.

"We have limited resources but a lot of ideas," she said. "We really need volunteers who can just volunteer four to five hours a month or start a project or program that interests them, something they would like to see the kids involved in."

Connie Benitez, a pharmacuetical technician with Kaweah Delta, has been bringing her two children, Araceli, 9, and Thomas, 8, since January and has asked to volunteer at the club. She said her children enjoy coming to the club and spending more time afterschool with their friends, even if they are just doing homework or sharing a snack.

"I want to volunteer to be able to see who my kids are hanging out with and just to be involved," Benitez said. "It is nice to be able to drop them off here knowing they are having fun and that I can get other things done."

The Farmersville Boys & Girls Club is located at 623 N. Avery Lane across from Armstrong Park. To get more information, donate materials and supplies or to volunteer, call the club at 594-1977. As for the musty old sanctuary, Engelbrecht said it has the potential to be modernized and used for a theatre hall for club plays and productions.

"There is a lot of potential for growth here," Engelbrecht said about the room.

Farmersville seems to agree.

Start typing and press Enter to search