Opinion piece by Courtney B. Vance, published in USA Today’s print edition on Wednesday, August 14, 2019.
Growing up in Detroit, I used to wake up every day and couldn’t wait to get to my Boys & Girls Club. Called the “Boys Club” back then, I enjoyed playing ping pong and creating arts and crafts projects in a safe place after school. It was also there where I met my mentor, Mr. George Brown. Mr. Brown saw something special in me. He helped change my path in life by securing a scholarship to attend the Detroit Country Day School, a private school my parents couldn’t afford. That moment was life-changing for me – and I’m forever thankful.
Courtney B. Vance is a Tony-nominated actor, producer and graduate of the prestigious Yale School of Drama.
The Boys & Girls Club wasn’t your average after-school or summer program. The Club made sure academics came first, so I spent my out-of-school time focusing on education and homework above all else. After my homework was complete, I honed my skills in sports. I played bumper pool and basketball.
Eventually, the Highland Park Boys Club became a part of my daily routine and my safe haven. It was a place where I could cultivate my dreams. It helped build the foundation of who I am today – a people person, nice guy, protector and a leader.
The Boys & Girls Club undoubtedly saved my life and taught me that out-of-school time – summers and after-school – is just as important as going back-to-school.
Today still, there are young people who were just like me that need a place to go after school. More than 11 million kids leave school every day with no place to go – unsupervised, unguided and unsafe. And I know after-school is a dangerous time, a time when someone can get into trouble. Juvenile crime escalates during after school time, between 3-7 pm, when kids have no place to go.
So how do we reach kids and teens before they become products of their high-risk environments? How do we help them see their greatness inside, when they don’t recognize it themselves? How do we ensure that they feel just as physically and emotionally safe out of school as they do in school?
Preparedness. Sadly, 1 in 5 young people live in poverty. We need to equip students with basic tools like school supplies, backpacks and shoes to ensure they can focus on learning.
Continuity. In order to be successful, learning should take place inside and outside the classroom. Forty-three million kids don’t have access to summer learning programs, putting them at a significant disadvantage at the start of each school year. Summer learning, homework assistance, workforce readiness programs, like the ones I took advantage of at my local Boys & Girls Club, can change the entire trajectory and meaning of back-to-school.
Confidence. Give them the self-confidence to use their voices to be problem-solvers, innovators and leaders who shape our world. Malachi Haynes is the 2018 Boys & Girls Club Youth of the Year and a great example. He created a Club program to improve reading called “Double Trouble,” once he saw that African-American males in his community were consistently reading two or three levels below their grade. The Boys & Girls Club prepared him to be a leader and create the continuity the kids needed to improve their literacy outside of the classroom.
Here’s the thing – there are a ton more stories like Malachi’s and mine, thanks to Boys & Girls Clubs and their leaders. People know me today as a Tony and Emmy award-winning actor, producer, author, and graduate of the prestigious Yale School of Drama. But it’s more important for them to understand where I came from. My determination, perseverance and decision to be a leader, not a follower, got me to where I am today. That’s the secret formula.
Like Boys & Girls Clubs of America, I have made reaching underprivileged, at-risk kids and teens my mission. I want them to know that anything is possible. I want to be an example, for what success and overcoming any situation looks like.
So America, as we head back to school, let’s not forget that kids need access to programs like the Boys & Girls Club. When schools are out, Clubs are in – they change and save lives.