Lesley Suen, Analice Saavedra, Claerence Clark, Joseph Mason & Taylor Copling make art at the Penick Boys and Girls Club in Little Rock.

It doesn’t take much to get Cindy Doramus fired up when the topic is serving young people. As CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Arkansas, she’s constantly beating the drum for providing safe places and bright futures to the city’s youth—up to 1,200 of who troop into their local Boys & Girls Club every day after school and who stretch the capacity of programs and activities in the summertime.

“We’re here and we’re here for the long haul,” she says, the heat rising in her voice with missionary zeal. “We don’t have a choice; we have to be here to make an impact that’s strong and deep in the lives of the kids that we serve.”

Doramus’ attitude on life skills and academic achievement—and the role that the organization plays in promoting them—is infectious and reflects how a 100-year-old mission stays relevant by constantly keeping up with the times.

“Most people know us for basketball, baseball and even swimming; but our focus for our young people has changed so much,” Doramus says. “We’re not the club that we were 100 years ago, 50 years ago, even 10 years ago.”

As if to underscore this point, Boys & Girls Clubs recently announced a partnership with Little Rock-based Acxiom to introduce a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) curriculum, starting this summer. Acxiom and its CEO Scott Howe donated $50,000 to the program, which will introduce STEM concepts to youngsters ages 9-12 at the six central Arkansas clubs and one in Conway.

“We’ve done things, like different educational games, that skirted around STEM programs but because of this very generous gift—it’s an investment, actually—we will be able to have a formal curriculum, taught by actual teachers or college students who have experience in this type of program,” Doramus says.

The value of the pilot program goes beyond being an entertaining diversion during summer break. Doramus says STEM concepts are important building blocks for children’s futures.

“For the industry and the businesses here locally, there’s not a workforce to meet demand,” she says. “By introducing (STEM) at a young age, we get them excited and that gives us a very unique opportunity to take kids into the club at age 6 and keep them until they’re 18 and make sure they stay engaged. If we can do that, we can help ensure that they have job readiness skills and that they understand what it takes to keep a job and what employers expect out of them.”

Though the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Arkansas is well-known for its sports leagues, the organization has grown to offer everything from STEM curriculum to arts instruction. In the Music My Way program, students like Hugo Martinez, pictured here, learn to read music and play instruments.

This kind of program evolution, balanced with timeless lessons of sportsmanship, tolerance and respect for others, has kept the organization prominent in the lives of generations of Little Rock youngsters. Patrick Schueck, president of Lexicon, Inc., grew up at the Boys & Girls Club in more ways than one.

“It started as an avenue to play basketball, but became more than that; I met many friends at the club that I am still friends with today,” he says. “It was a positive way for me to grow up in a diversified atmosphere that taught me many lessons on life. It taught me that people have more in common than at first glance, that it doesn’t matter where you go to school or what side of the proverbial tracks that you grew up on. As a child, you just want to have a safe place to learn and grow.

“If you walk into any of the Boys & Girls Clubs on a summer day, your head would spin. Kids are everywhere! But the more you walk around…you also notice kids are not just playing sports, they are working on reading skills, arts and crafts, computer skills and most importantly, they are learning to deal with one another.”

Patrick Schueck, a Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Arkansas board member, plays kickball with his daughters, Ava and Hayden.

Schueck’s appreciation for the life lessons of Boys & Girls Club participation precedes him—his father Tom Schueck sat on the organization’s board and was a regular financial backer—and he has in turn handed it down to his three children, 9-year-old twins Ava and Hayden and 12-year-old Mason. Now a board member himself, he says the thing that would surprise most people is the emphasis on education that permeates the club programming.

“What amazes me about the Boys & Girls Club is its ability to cultivate the talents of these young kids, so they understand what they are capable of. They open their eyes to the potential each one of them has in a positive way by continually pushing these kids to do better in school, to look outside the box,” he says.

“I marvel at the patience of the unit directors; they do so much with so little. They have to act as coach, teacher, parent, psychologist, disciplinarian, cook, on and on. [They] are amazing people who care about the kids they serve just as they would their own.”

A misconception is that the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Arkansas is supported by public money, which it is not. Therefore, finding sources of funding to augment the modest membership fees—particularly at a time when available grant dollars are declining—is a continual process. Fortunately, examples of the value of club programs aren’t particularly difficult to find.

In a state where 15 percent of high school students fail to graduate high school on time, 96 percent of central Arkansas youth attending the Boys & Girls Club expect to graduate high school and 73 percent expect to go to college. In an era when 14 percent of high schoolers in Arkansas were involved in a fight last year, 23 percent of the organization’s kids volunteer at least annually and 17 percent participate in community service activities once per month. In a state ranked first in obesity, 63 percent of members report getting an hour or more of exercise five or more days per week.

“We have to be constantly getting the message out and making sure the community understands everything we do,” Doramus said. “Contributing to the Boys & Girls Club goes far beyond a donation; this is an investment, it’s an investment in our future. And we’re producing results.”

History Lesson: Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Arkansas

• The forerunner to the Boys & Girls Club, called Newsboys Classes, launched in 1912 as a way to give hardscrabble street-corner paper boys a channel for their energies.

• In 1920, North Little Rock chartered the Drum and Bugle Corps by the publisher of the Argenta Daily News as a means to attract paper boys. The Corps became a Boys Club shortly thereafter.

• Activities offered in the early days of the Little Rock Boys Club included baseball, basketball, boxing, wrestling, carpentry, woodworking, printing, drama, Harmonica Club and a marbles club. It also printed its own club newspaper and, thanks to a donation of projection equipment by the Majestic Theater, hosted regular Friday night “moving picture shows.”

• Girls were admitted to the Little Rock club starting in 1933.

• The first exclusive clubhouse was the Concordia Building at 801 Scott Street in downtown Little Rock, purchased in the 1920s for $42,000. It burned to the ground by the end of the decade and a massive fundraising campaign ensued to erect a new club, completed by 1931.

• North Little Rock built an expansive club at 13th and Main Streets in 1936; it too was destroyed by fire, in 1969, and rebuilt on a different site in the early 1970s.

• During World War II, it was estimated more than 150,000 Boys Club alums were enlisted in the armed services nationally. 

• In 2015, Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Arkansas served members 277,000 healthy meals and snacks.

Today’s organization includes 4,800 member families spanning six central Arkansas clubs, overseen by 121 adult staff and 250 volunteers.

Source: Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Arkansas

Centennial Celebration

Lesley Suen, Analice Saavedra, Claerence Clark, Joseph Mason & Taylor Copling make art (below) and play kickball (above) at the Penick Boys and Girls Club in Little Rock.

Plan to attend the Boys & Girls Club of Central Arkansas Centennial Event, July 12th at Cache Restaurant in Little Rock. Tickets are $100 and include complimentary beer and wine, heavy hors d’oeuvres, free valet parking, a silent auction and live music.

To purchase tickets or for more information, visit ARClubs.org.