It was an evening of gratitude, laughter and celebration Thursday night as about 500 people gathered to honor the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Brazos Valley's 60th year working alongside local children and youth ages 6-18.
Children and teenagers from the two area branches ran the evening's program from the head table at the front of a Brazos County Expo Complex ballroom audience that included the mayors of Bryan and College Station, several Brazos County elected officials and dozens of past and present Boys and Girls Club members.
"These are the kids we stand in the gap for," club CEO Tiffany S. Parker said as she gestured to the young leaders of the event. "The programs that we provide for these kiddos are things that they don't always get in other places. We have opportunities to share life experiences, social skills and leadership skills."
Past chairman Eugene "Sonny" Lyles urged attendees, and the broader community, to support the organization, and particularly to donate to its building fund. The organization seeks to begin construction of a new facility on Beck Street that would be double the Bryan location's current size and able to serve more area children.
Three prominent area figures were inducted to the Boys and Girls Club of the Brazos Valley (BGCBV) alumni hall of fame. BGCBV athletic director Gerald Carter, social recreation director and Bryan High School employee Lester Banks and Stylecraft Builders CEO Doug French all received standing ovations as board member Matthew D. Doss introduced each man in turn.
A child's membership in the club costs $15, which covers the academic year. Participation in the summer program is $45, and scholarships are available. The Boys & Girls Club of the Brazos Valley serves about of 1,200 members yearly with daily attendance averaging 100 kids per site during the school year.
BGCBV, with branches in Bryan and College Station, is part of a national affiliation of more than 4,000 clubs that serve millions of youth. Bryan resident Mary Ann Parker opened the Boys Club of Bryan Inc. in Downtown Bryan on May 5, 1959. About 250 boys joined the original club and took part in carpentry, boxing, football and more.
In 1979, the club became the Boys Clubs of Brazos County, and eventually became the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Brazos Valley in April 1990 after girls were permitted to join.
Club members and youths Deion Johnson and Micayla Murray served as co-emcees for the evening. Both shared bits of their life journey and thanked BGCBV staff and volunteers, as well as their families, for their roles in helping each student find success.
"I'm Deion Johnson, and I'm going to continue to work hard for myself and to be a better young man. I wouldn't be here without them," Johnson said.
Johnson and Murray both described the BGCBV staff and volunteers, as well as the other children and teenagers, as being akin to a second family.
Board member Shelley Nelson attended the celebration with members of her family, including her husband, Bryan mayor Andrew Nelson. Shelley Nelson said she has served on the board for more than two years and was immediately hooked when she saw the children and teens leading an annual meeting from the front of the room.
"For me, the most important thing is the character that is built in these kids," Nelson said during the event's catered dinner. "They gain confidence, and through the large number of successful programs we have, we are focusing on building kids from the ground up who have confidence and can talk in front of large groups like this."
Mayor Nelson echoed several speakers when he said that the club often proves to be a life-changing presence in the lives of young people. "They change people's lives, and they change families' directions permanently. It's an easy organization to support, and it's an honor to be here to do so."
Andrew Nelson's father, Gary, himself an alumnus of a club on the East Coast, also attended.
"I was 8 years old in western New York, and I was there every day after school and in the summers. If I had to choose one person who most influenced my life trajectory, it would be Ken Whitney, the director. He was my mentor, and no teacher matched him. I was formed, and I attribute to him a lot of my successes."