& Free Trip to Margaritaville
The mission of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America is “to enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens.” Simply stated, the Boys and Girls Club of Walker County “fills gaps,” says executive director Michelle Spencer. Currently, 85 to 90 children attend before- and after-school programs at Scott Johnson Elementary (a licensed child care facility), while another 125 to 150 children in kindergarten through eighth grade are brought by bus each afternoon from other Huntsville schools to the Martin Luther King Recreation Center. The Postcards team arrives there just minutes before the first bus pulls in.
3:15 p.m. – It’s the proverbial “calm before the storm” as the club’s staff prepares for the arrival of the children. While club staffers are paid, Sam Houston State University students often volunteer at the club for class credit. “It’s a team effort,” Michelle says, boasting of the staff’s dedication. “They have to love children, because there’s a lot of labor involved.”
3:20 p.m. – Happy children begin pouring out of buses and into the recreation center. Some spot Benjamin Rodriguez, site director, and shout, “Hi, Mr. Benji!” Membership in the club is first come-first served, Michelle says, and there is currently a waiting list for some age groups. Once its new building is operational, the club will be able to serve 400 students, and the upper age limit will be extended to 18.
3:30 p.m. – Two more buses arrive, and an ocean of children swirls into the recreation center. “We have a great partnership between Boys and Girls Club and HISD,” Michelle says. “We said, ‘We have a site, and we have kids who need to get there. Can you help us?’”
3:35 p.m. – Another two buses arrive. “See how they just keep coming?” Michelle asks. “It’s never a dull day at the club!” Students smile at the staff; some hug “Mr. Benji” and “Mrs. Michelle.” One student hams for the camera and quips, “Get my good side!”
3:40 p.m. – By now, most of the children are seated at tables according to grade. “Once we get them seated, we pass out snacks,” Benjamin says. Snacks include juice and Goldfish crackers, Cheez-Its, Teddy Grahams, or animal crackers.
3:45 p.m. – The children are eating, and will be able to continue nibbling during their homework time. Today, many of the children participated in STAAR testing, so their productive homework time, “Power Hour,” which usually lasts about 30 minutes, will be abbreviated.
3:50 p.m. – Israel Liggins, a retired Texas Department of Criminal Justice employee (once a volunteer and now a paid staffer), hands out pencils and word search puzzles to first graders. The puzzle contains words on this week’s spelling list. “We want to reinforce what they are learning in school,” Michelle says. Tutors on staff (including a certified teacher) also address individual educational deficiencies, such as those that were identified on a recent benchmark test.
3:55 p.m. – The noise in the room is almost deafening, but a clap-clap, clap-clap-clap can be heard over the children’s voices as Patrick Simmons, one of the staff members, rallies the children. They clap back in rhythm. “If you can hear my voice, clap once!” Patrick says. “If you can hear my voice, clap twice! If you can hear my voice, turn around and face the front!” Patrick compliments several children by name for compliance.
4:00 p.m. – The room is quiet. After receiving instructions for the day, the children shout the Boys and Girls Club Code in unison: “I believe in God and the right to worship according to my own faith and religion. I believe in America, the American way of life, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I believe in fair play, honesty, and sportsmanship. I believe in my Boys and Girls Club, which stands for all these things.” In an atmosphere reminiscent of a pep rally, students hold up signs bearing the letters B and E, and G, R, E, A and T. As each letter is held high, the children shout, “Be positive! Education before entertainment! Grow into a better me! Respect club rules! Enjoy club activities! Attitude determines altitude! Treat everyone with respect!”
4:05 p.m. – The children begin rotating through 30-minute activities, including playground time, art, indoor games (such as board games, air hockey and tetherball), P.E. (including warm-ups, group games, and free time), and special groups (such as self-improvement classes).
4:35 p.m. – Students rotate activities by grade level. Outside at Emancipation Park, it’s a beautiful day, and the children are romping happily. “We try to get kids up and moving,” Michelle says.
5:05 p.m. – Students rotate activities again. The group meeting at Scott Johnson Elementary can stay until 5:30 p.m., but here at Martin Luther King Recreation Center, activities will continue until 7 p.m. to accommodate parents whose shifts end at 6 p.m. Staffers are equipped with walkie-talkies, so they can be notified when parents arrive to pick up their children.
Nationally, Michelle says, most crimes committed by children, against children, and between children occur between 3 and 8 p.m. By giving children a safe place to stay during those hours, crimes can prevented. Furthermore, she says, children who are nurtured properly can become productive members of society. “Do we want to pay a million dollars a year for them to be incarcerated?” she says. “Why not invest in prevention? Walker County is one of the poorest counties in Texas, so we have a very large percentage of kids ‘who need us most.’”
Families pay just $15 per child per month for after-school programming at the Martin Luther King Recreation Center site. Summer programs cost $30 per week per child and include breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack; most field trips are free. Michelle is constantly searching for grants, donations and other sources of income to support the clubs, she says, and her job is often stressful. On days like that, she comes to the club. “I get my hugs, I get my big smiles, I get my artwork, and I can go a little longer. I can fight for these kids a little harder.”
After graduating from Sam Houston State University, Michelle Spencer worked for a while, then got married, had a baby, and left the work force. She enjoyed volunteering with children’s programs at her church, so a friend suggested a part-time position as an art director with the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Fort Worth.
Michelle interviewed for the position and was hired on the spot, but by the time she returned home, there was a message on her answering machine offering her a full-time job. She was so excited, she accepted without even discussing it with her husband. Eleven years later, by then a director in the Greater Fort Worth organization, a colleague asked Michelle if she had ever considered working as an executive director of an organization.
“Why would I do that?” Michelle asked her. “I love my job.” When she returned home that day, the mail contained an invitation to a Fort Worth-area SHSU alumni luncheon, and she decided to attend. On the day of the event, she joined a woman who was sitting alone at a table with three men.
During introductions, she told about her affiliation with the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Fort Worth. The man sitting next to her surprised her by saying, “I am Dr. Wes Johnson, assistant dean of the Criminal Justice Department and board president of the Boys and Girls Club of Walker County,” he said. “I just read your resume.” He explained that the Walker County organization, just two years old, was looking for an executive director; during lunch, Michelle told him about her accomplishments. Meanwhile, a Fort Worth Independent School District employee arrived late and complimented Michelle’s work on Boys and Girls Club programs. Michelle knew that the meeting was too big a coincidence to take lightly.
“Okay, Lord, I hear you,” she said. On May 31, 2005, Michelle drove to Huntsville for a panel interview. By July 18 of that year, Michelle was the executive director of Boys and Girls Club of Walker County. “Nothing happens that fast unless the Lord has His hand in it,” Michelle says. “I knew for a fact I was supposed to be here. I prayed, ‘I see you are setting things up for me, but is this really where you want me to be? If you open up doors for me, I promise I will be your witness.” Michelle also made “a couple of deals” with God.
“I know you shouldn’t do that,” she says, “but I did. I said ‘I need you to help me to build a building, to make the club a catalyst for children in Walker County, and I would like a God-fearing husband, too.’” Today, land is being cleared for the construction of a 22,000-square foot, joint-use facility. The Boys and Girls Club of Walker County will use it on a regular basis; the City of Huntsville will use it as a safe room if needed to house evacuees of natural disasters. Meanwhile, the Boys and Girls Club of Walker County has flourished and now assists approximately 225 children. And three years ago, Michelle married Reverend Winston Spencer, Jr., the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Centerville.
“I keep telling our board,” Michelle says, “This isn’t me; this is nothing but God.” She also praises the many people who make Boys and Girls Club a success. “I couldn’t do this by myself; the staff couldn’t do this by themselves; the board couldn’t do this by itself. It wouldn’t work with one donor. It takes all of us, and it’s all for a great cause.”