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Hard Times: The Boys & Girls Clubs' Sell-Off

For nearly two years, the old Eastern Branch Boys & Girls Club on Capitol Hill has sat empty, a sad symbol of the decision by the club's parent organization to turn its back on city kids who relied on the clubhouses for recreation and education for nearly a century.

Today, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington is announcing the closing of four more of its clubs, including the Hopkins club in Southeast Washington, the Jelleff club in Georgetown--which uniquely draws kids from all over the city, and clubs in Alexandria and Adelphi.

The Boys & Girls Clubs, fearing antagonistic public reaction to their cuts, embargoed this news until this hour. Post reporters will flesh out the story in the coming hours and days, but for now, suffice to say that this slashing of clubs was a long time coming--a result of a misguided effort to capitalize on the organization's extensive real estate holdings and to spread the clubs' wings in the suburbs while cutting services to some of the most needy kids in the District.

When the clubs started down this road two years ago, the real estate boom was still hot enough to get the club executives salivating about how to parlay its property holdings into development deals that could fund future programming. But the deals never happened, and now, like many non-profits, the Boys & Girls Clubs face severe financial difficulties.

"We are going to see the contraction of quite a few non-profits in these tough times," says Terri Lee Freeman, president of the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, which manages 700 charitable funds for individuals and businesses. The foundation's vice president for community investment, Angela Jones Hackley, says after-school programs are particularly hard hit by the double whammy of government budget cuts and private giving that is, for good reasons, being steered more toward emergency needs--food, clothing, shelter.

But the Boys & Girls Clubs' problems predate the recession. The group's directors and administrators decided years ago that kids in gentrifying urban neighborhoods didn't need their services as much as they used to--a woefully wrong reading of the changing city. Any glance at who attends D.C. public schools makes clear that there are still many thousands of kids in the District who desperately need extra help, as well as supervised play in the hours after school lets out.

"What's really essential for us is to serve as many children as possible that need us," Will Gunn, then the president of the clubs, told me in 2007. "And a valuable asset we have is the real estate we have in certain areas."

Gunn is gone, as his successor. Kevin Dowdell resigned last week after imposing a 10 percent layoff on the organization, which remained $7 million in debt.

The clubs' efforts to get the D.C. government to bail them out did not go well. The city is cutting left and right, and is in no condition to take on new responsibilities (indeed, many of the Boys & Girls Clubs in the city are former police-run clubs that were handed over to Boys & Girls not that long ago.)

Boys & Girls argues that they are not forsaking the city, and indeed they are launching new programs at a couple of schools, especially east of the Anacostia River. But part of the organization's problem has been its desire to expand into suburbs that very much desire their services, but that should not be served at the expense of city neighborhoods where the needs and traditions run deep.

By Marc Fisher |  April 8, 2009; 5:00 PM ET  | Category:  The District
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Comments

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That's really sad to hear. I both attended and worked at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southhampton Roads in Norfolk/Virginia in middle school and high school. That was one of the best experiences of my young life. They were there for me; they helped me pay for college. When I moved up here, I started giving to the B and G through work. I wish I had known this was going to happen - I think a lot of people would have been willing to help out. I don't like to think of a community losing a place like that.

Posted by: breetaiya | April 8, 2009 8:25 PM

The Boys & Girls Club is IN Capitol Hill, not "on" it! Sheesh! One doesn't live "on" Dupont Circle, or "on" Deanwood. The only thing "on" Capitol Hill is the building which houses our seat of government.

Posted by: JohnnyReb1 | April 9, 2009 11:02 AM

At Eastern Branch, on eastern Capitol Hill (far closer to D.C. Jail than to Eastern Market and the pricy bistros) the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington cynically tried top exploit the rosy methodology of gentrification in hopes of cashing in on a sweet real estate deal.
Picture the scene: With a deadly drug gang operating within a block or so and drug sales ongoing in the park across from Eastern’s front door and wannabe neighborhood youngsters scrawling boy and girl gang tags all over the place, Boy & Girls club officials claimed they couldn’t find enough kids at risk to serve at Eastern.
The truth was evident: They weren’t even trying. The only kids that interested them were from charter schools elsewhere that might contract -- pay, that is -- for afterschool services. At the same time, they were advertising once fine programs at Eastern that no longer existed -- touting them as examples of the great job they were doing -- while using the Eastern budget to pay for personnel and services in other clubs.
Evidence was they positively lusted to close and sell Eastern. But they needed an excuse, which "gentrification" became.
After the 2001 NBA All-Star Game -- Eastern was the dedicated charity for that weekend -- operations at Eastern became closer to a total sham. But all the same, Boys and Girls Club officials continued to wax almost delusional in claiming all the good they were doing -- especially when city officials were in the room. In one such session more recently, I heard club officials suggest that the city should buy one facility (not Eastern) but retain rights to collect rent from its use.
Say what?
I fear the Fenty administration, perhaps remembering Boys & Girls Club glories long past, has been slow to pick up on these shenanigans. But Council Member Jim Graham, at least, has caught on and appears to bringing together club supporters in the communities the Boys & Girls Club has abandoned or is about to.
Meanwhile, a group called Neighbors United is bringing together 60, 70 or more kids a night at the Payne School playground. These are among the kids that the Boys & Girls Club couldn’t find for Eastern, closed for approaching two years now. But understand, too, that the city also pulled its youth workers from the Payne Recreation Center (the same playground) last August. Now, if you wish, it’s often possible to watch a sorry tug o’ war at the playground gate between the youth and older elements who prefer craps games, R.I.P. graffiti and other ways of the street and those offering organized sports with good coaching and other positive programs.
This, of course, is the serious struggle the Boys and Girls club has abandoned. Shame on them.

Jim Myers

Posted by: jmyers8331 | April 10, 2009 9:52 AM

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