If there’s one aspect that stands out throughout the past 125 years for the Charlestown Boys & Girls Club, it’s the positive relationships between the young people and staff members at the Club that have helped propel positive lives, and chances to try new and different things.
The historic Club – the flagship club for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston – kicked off its 125th Anniversary year during a colossal gala on Saturday, Jan. 27, and will continue celebrating the milestone for the rest of the year. Of course, all of that will be in addition to their normal service to the children and families of Charlestown – which has been the overall focus since the Club began 125 years ago to teach boys a trade and keep them from hanging on the street corners of the Town.
“Every day is different here,” said Peter Nash, executive director of the Charlestown Club. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen. It does keep things fresh, and when I wander around the building during the afternoon – I enjoy watching the smiles on the faces of the children. What keeps us all here though is that relationship dynamic. As a staff, we get along very well, and I think that’s why the kids come. They develop positive relationships with the adults. We have great facilities here, but I don’t think that’s why people keep coming here decade after decade. It’s the relationships and the connections.”
Nash explained that Frank Mason started the Charlestown Club in a top-floor apartment of an old building on Main Street where the current Santander Bank sits. He started it because he saw many teenage boys hanging on the street corners of Charlestown and getting into trouble. He founded the club – which is third-oldest Boys & Girls Club in the entire United States network of Clubs – to teach boys a trade they could use to become employed, such as printing or carpentry.
“Today, we do things completely different, but the focus is still for the kids to enjoy their time with us and have a two-year plan when they leave for college, trade school or the military,” said Nash. “That core value is still the same as it was in the beginning…If you think about 125 years, that’s two world wars, the Great Depression, desegregation and now gentrification. The organization has navigated through all of that, and we’ve continued to serve families here and we continue to do that today.”
Nash came to the Charlestown Club five years ago after having served in clubs in South Boston and Chelsea. However, he said many of the staffers have been at the Club for decades.
That includes John Killoran, who has served in many different roles at the Club over the years.
Killoran has been working at the Club for about 30 years, but credits the leadership of former director Jerry Stiemel (who once wrote a column in the Patriot called ‘Jerry’s Corner’) as taking the Club to new heights.
“With Jerry, it was a unique time,” he said. “There was a huge emphasis on re-developing the buildings. Our facilities were in very poor condition. We were getting waivers from the fire codes because of it. Jerry was very motivated to renovate the facilities. It ended up happening…I grew up in Charlestown and am from a big family here. Being from here gives you a big motivation to do well by people in the Town when we work with the kids. I think the biggest compliment is having people trust us with their kids. I don’t think people realize what a big thing that is.
“One of the great things about this Club is we do have a good balance of people who grew up here and people who didn’t,” he continued. “That strikes a nice balance.”
He agreed with Nash in that the greatest asset of the Club in Charlestown is not necessarily the programming and facilities – which he said are great – but really it is the relationships and sincerity of the staff with the kids.
“The core areas of programming are great, but they only go so far,” he said. “I think it’s important that all on the staff can bring something and be able to come down to their level and even play a game with a kid. It’s giving them the one-on-one attention they may not be getting…It’s somewhat of a calling in youth work – to almost be a kid yourself in order to bring the same enthusiasm kids have. A kid can tell if you enjoy what you’re doing with them or if you’re just looking at your watch to get out of there.”
Program Director Krishna Foran, who has been at the Club for 23 years, said it is a great community and a great organization. Coming from the South End as an African American two decades ago, she said she wasn’t sure what to think about Charlestown. However, she said her experience serving the community and being a part of the community couldn’t have been better.
“I was welcomed with open arms, and the Charlestown Club and Charlestown community are both wonderful places,” she said. “I’ve been here 23 years now, and it’s definitely been a learning experience. I look forward to coming to work every day – the kids, parents and staff make it enjoyable. I always say they should have a Club in every community because they give kids an opportunity to try so many new and different things. Those opportunities to do things you’ve never done gives a kid confidence.”
She noted that many alums end up coming back to work in the Club and serve the community that helped raise them.
“We have a full-time staff of 30 or more and about 16 at least are alums and that’s just adult staff and not counting the college students that come back,” she said.
Foran also brought her own daughter to the Club from a very early age until she graduated. Now 21 and at Plymouth State University, Foran’s daughter began coming to the Club at age 1 in a toddler program that no longer exists. During the typical ages of 6 to 18, she was there almost every day, participating in the swim team and trying thinks like snow skiing.
“I am happy to be part of the celebration and I only hope the Charlestown Club is here another 125 years,” she said.