By: Ali Elizabeth Turner
On Thursday, February 8, the Athens Boys and Girls Club is going to be celebrating its 25th annual dinner at 6:30 p.m. at the Beasley Center, and you are invited. So, what’s this shindig all about? For 80 years, the Boys and Girls Club has had a helpful presence in North Alabama, beginning in Huntsville and Decatur. Planning for the Athens start-up began in 1993, so that’s when some of the founders–Glenn and Martha Blackwell and Susan Parker– consider the Club to have been conceived, and the Athens chartered Boys and Girls Club opened up in May of 1994. Glenn had been a part of the Decatur Club as a child, and he knew from firsthand experience the difference it had made in shaping him for success as an adult.
Suzanne Rainey Thompson heard Susan Parker speak, and she knew she wanted to be a part of the ground-floor effort to establish a charter. She was there at the old Athens Elementary School gym to help sign up those first 100 kids, and to this day remembers every one of them. She also was in charge of arts that first summer, a most important part of a kid’s development that is all too often ignored these days. At the time, Suzanne was just completing her degree in education from Athens State University, and this became her career instead. In order to become an officially recognized club, the national organization requires 100 members to start, and the Athens club got chartered in time to offer summertime services to kids who were out of school.
Suzanne has worn many hats during her time with the club. From 1994-1998, she was the Education Director for the Athens Club. She was Unit Director of Boys and Girls Club Athens-Limestone County from 1998-2000, and Executive Director beginning in 2000. During that time, clubs opened in Ardmore as well as Tanner, and now they are all merged with the Huntsville Clubs and have been renamed Boys and Girls Club of North Alabama (BGCNAL). Suzanne is now the vice-president of the re-organized group, and she is quick to say that she loves her new position, but sorely misses working face-to-face with the kids.
I asked Suzanne to tell me about some of the kids from the early days, and she said wistfully, “There has been great success, and some heartbreak. April Houston Collins was a young single mom as a teen, and went on to get her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees, become a lawyer for HUD, married a Birmingham man who is a school principal, has four kids, and has started her own successful law firm,” she said. “Wow!” I replied.
“Then there is Marcus Stanley,” said Suzanne. “He’s deployed, he is a true artist, he is Mass Communications Specialist for the United States Navy, and his wife is one of the charter members as well,” she added. “Greg Hacker is currently serving as First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, and British Malone is serving ABH3 in the U.S. Navy. I am so very grateful and thankful for their service, and it makes me very proud for their leadership and commitment.” The heartbreak, it turns out, came about in the form of a promising young man getting shot to death in a restaurant, along with some others. “It still hurts,” she told me.
Other successes have been David Williams, who is a barber here in Athens, and Stephen Harris, who is in real estate. They collaborated on producing some rap music which was sold to a label. “All in all over the years I would guess we have helped around 2500 kids,” said Suzanne. They have ranged in age from 5-18.
I asked Suzanne why I should choose the Boys and Girls Club as a place to send a child, and she replied, “We have a proven track record for helping kids, and we provide fun with a purpose. Kids learn leadership skills, the arts, sports, and we offer all kinds of hands-on learning. We have our own facility, which is important, and are a safe place for kids to be after school. We work to truly change lives, help them grow, and we have a vision for the future. Kids have needs today that weren’t the case when we first started,” she said. For this year’s fund-raising dinner, the focus is on getting a fulltime STEM lab as well as teacher-director, she said. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, and that is an area where kids all across the nation need a boost.
Other financial needs include the fact that the school calendar is changing, and kids are going to need to have access to BGCNAL until August 30 when they go back for fall term. If investing in the future of our children through the Boys and Girls Club is something you want to be a part of, then please consider sponsoring a table for $325, or get individual tickets for $25 each by calling Minnie Leonard at 256-232-4298. You can also go to www.bgcnal.com for more information. Dress for the event is business casual. See you on February 8!
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner