When I first learned the big word "boondoggle," I was being taught to make key chains, wristbands and belts with it. At the time, I didn't realize it was also a part of teaching me about character-building, values, fair play, patience, how to resolve conflicts and to learn some skills. I was around people who believed in me and had expectations. They were role models and teachers. We sometimes forget that learning doesn't take place only within the walls of schools, but it is an ongoing thing — and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America are a good example of that.
Growing up in Salt Lake City, the old Boys & Girls Club, once located on Main Street next to Derk's Field, was the place to be. We called it the "Elks' Club" because they helped sponsor it. The building looked like an old airplane hangar with wrap-around windows, and I looked forward to going there after school to have fun, learn new things, meet kids from different backgrounds and learn to be a jock. It was a safe place where we learned how to resolve arguments with the help of supervisors — and at times, even resolve them with boxing gloves. It was a place where leaders taught us skills, built us up and taught us to believe that we could accomplish things. They believed in us.
For some of us poor kids, the Elks' Club was inviting with a variety of things to do, programs to participate in, projects to make, woodcraft tools to use, plastic to laminate, and arts and crafts. It was a buzzing place. One day a week, part of the basketball court was turned into a movie theater where we sat on wrestling mats and watched old movies shown on a white sheet from a 16mm projector that frequently chewed up the film.
In today's fast-paced society, where some parents think they have to program, schedule, plan and structure events, there is little room for youths to explore things on their own and learn to live, play and resolve problems. For me, the club leaders became the people I looked up to. They helped build the character youths need in order to live and thrive in our society. Kids learn that self-esteem comes from trying, risking, failing and learning how to cope with life, and having someone there to cheer them on, not put them down. It is part of growing up, and Boys & Girls Clubs of America give youths the opportunity to stretch their wings as they begin to enjoy exploring and thriving in their world.
It seems that in our society today, we have bought in to the idea of waiting for kids to fail; and, once they do, we have created an industry of social and law enforcement services so they can get help. All kids have the same needs as they develop. Boys & Girls Clubs of America have been key institutions of our communities that help form the healthy character of youths at the "front end," rather than the "back end," as we seem more prone to doing these days. We should have more programs, such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, that focus on positive development of youths, rather than those waiting for kids to fail so they can come to the attention of the courts and get "treatment."
Somehow we have lost sight of the importance of the social and skill development of youths and built artificial programs that stifle kids' desire to explore, imagine, create and learn at their own pace. It seems the only boondoggle kids learn today is that which adults and professionals have created.
A Utah native, John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations; been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards; and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and as a member of the commission on Hispanic education. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org