Growth and Belonging: C to C, The Commitment to Community Podcast Series from Oswald
When it comes to empowering youth, the right connections, at the right times, can transform lives and last a lifetime. Allen Smith, Chief Programs Officer of Boys & Girls Clubs of Northeast Ohio, knows this first-hand from his decades of experience and service with the organization. Check out the podcast and transcript below to learn how the organization continues to find powerful ways to connect its members with opportunities for growth and belonging within communities.
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SCHMITZ: Hi, it’s Christina. Welcome back to C-to-C the commitment to community podcast from Oswald Companies. I’m so honored to have here, actually, via Zoom today for the meeting is Allen Smith, from Boys & Girls Clubs of Northeast Ohio. Allen, thank you so much for joining us today. How are you?
SMITH: I am doing well. And I’m just honored to be here. Oswald has been a supporter of Boys & Girls Clubs, and so we’re grateful to have this platform.
SCHMITZ: Wonderful. Well, before we get started today, I’d love to learn more about you. What calls you to your service and role of chief programs officer for Boys & Girls Clubs of Northeast Ohio?
SMITH: I was blessed to be a Boys & Girls Clubs member. I actually had parents that wanted to make sure that I had exposures to be able to learn how to swim and play basketball at a very young age. I had an uncle who was a Boys & Girls Clubs director, and they took me to the Boys & Girls Clubs at age seven. So let’s just say I’ve been a part of the Boys & Girls Clubs for a very, very long time.
SCHMITZ: I can’t wait to hear more about that. And how long have you been with the organization on the professional side?
SMITH: I started my professional career at this point, 29 years and some months ago and next year in May, I will be at 30 years of employment with Boys & Girls Clubs. It’s been a blessing to me and has allowed for me to take care of my family, see this great country and really impact youth, which is something that I have a passion for. Yes.
SCHMITZ: So you started out in Toledo. Is that correct, and how did you end up coming to Cleveland?
SMITH: I started off in Toledo working actually as a junior staff person as a high school student and then went to College, got my undergraduate degree from Bowling Green State University and was working for a bank and hated it and needed a job. Boys & Girls Clubs had an opening… so I applied and really actually like that very first day within that first week, I realized that this was not just a gym and swim location, that it actually was much more than that. And as a young person, I didn’t have that knowledge.
But once I started working as a professional, I realized this is something really meaningful, and it ended up working out for me pretty well.
In terms of getting to Cleveland, I was serving as the director of operations for Boys & Girls Clubs of Toledo and got a call from Shelley Johnson, who is our director of HR. And we were already colleagues and friends from previous conferences. And she said, hey, so I heard you got another job. Congratulations. I said that didn’t happen. And she said, oh, so you’re available. She communicates that to Ron Soeder, who reached out to us, and we decided – my wife and I – to come to Cleveland.
SCHMITZ: Well, thank you. We’re so fortunate to have you here. So thanks for making that leap. Really appreciate that.
SMITH: It has been a blessing to us.
SCHMITZ: Wonderful… thinking about the history of the organization. I was reading on the website when this area was established in Cleveland and then also you shared earlier about that large merger in 2019. Can you share a bit about what we may call this legacy of service to youth in this area?
SMITH: Some fine people over at Arcelormittal and Cliffs Natural Resources back in 1954 came together to develop funds and strategy to create a Boys & Girls Club. And that initial site was located on Broadway Avenue, not far from where our main office in Cleveland is currently located. And with the same premise that all Boys & Girls Clubs across the country had at that point in time and really, actually, at that point in time, we were known as boys clubs. So at that point, we had not yet embraced being Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
That would not happen until much later. But it was something that was needed in the neighborhood and something that now has gone on for all of these years and grown to the extent that we are now serving (pre-COVID) in 39 locations, reaching about 10,000 kids per day in membership and about 2,000 kids per day in terms of average daily attendance, so 10,000 in our total membership and 2,000 per day in terms of our average daily attendance.
…They’ve impacted the lives of thousands of youth throughout Northeast Ohio because a lot of our young people go on to go to school in various parts of the state, and they kind of take this Boys & Girls Clubs seed with them and plant it wherever they go. And it’s not just that Boys & Girls Clubs of Cleveland, started in Boys & Girls Clubs of Lorain, Boys & Girls Clubs of Erie County, and then also Boys & Girls Clubs of the Western Reserve or the Boys & Girls Clubs in Akron.
We all came together in 2019 and formed this new partnership, which we believe is going to just impact youth throughout this region tremendously over the next several years.
SCHMITZ: Wow. Thanks for sharing that. And as you were talking a bit about the pandemic and this merger happening right before and everything’s coming together, how did the organization pivot? Or what are some of your most memorable or proudest moments in this transition (unfortunately, that we’re still living under).
SMITH: The big pivot that we made is that we decided to move away from our typical program delivery model, which is out of school time and shift to what we call a learning center model. The learning centers basically allow young people who don’t have maybe the parental support that they need or the capacity from the Internet or computer system standpoint to engage in school in the way that they should. So they would be able to come to the Boys & Girls Clubs and connect via our Internet and work through our proctors or our staff members.
They became proctors and engaged in their classes. So that was the major pivot. We went from doing it out of school time to during the school day and then in terms of the thing I’m most proud of and is really unique to us because of us having to shift and become learning centers. I was at one of our sites in Vermillion on the first day that kindergarten students were starting school. Some of those young people, their very first day of school happened in the Boys & Girls Clubs space.
So that’s something that was really unique and something that I think we are all proud of.
SCHMITZ: Absolutely…that’s going to shape and frame their experiences as you’re sharing the Boys & Girls that come to the club, they take that experience into the world. And what an opportunity from such a young age, truly, during such a difficult time. That’s so great to hear, and on that same note, based on your time with the organization, what do you feel are the greatest signs of strength and resiliency in the youth that you’ve experienced and worked with?
SMITH: That’s a really good question. I would say a lot of that was very evident at the very beginning of the pandemic. When we started our learning center initiatives, seeing young people who maybe didn’t have what they needed to do well in school, be committed enough and resilient enough to get to the Boys & Girls Clubs on their own, wanting to want to be engaged in school when maybe they weren’t being pushed, and that’s not all of our young people, but definitely there is a portion of young people that we serve who need additional support … to see those young people prioritize learning is very inspirational, and it’s counter to what many of us, as adults may be able to provide our children with, or maybe even the mindset that some of us may have instilled in some of our young people.
These young people were dedicated and committed enough to do it on their own and realized that they needed help and attend the Boys & Girls Clubs. I think that speaks volumes about many of the young people that we serve definitely in education and learning.
SCHMITZ: I know that’s one of your key pillars. What are the other key core service areas that you offer?
SMITH: The three core outcome areas that we have include academic success, which is what we’ve been talking about, but also healthy lifestyles, and that’s really important to us. And then character and citizenship is the third and all of our programs roll up to those three outcome areas. So when you come to a Boys & Girls Clubs, you will see programming in the arts. You will see sports and fitness. You will see leadership activities in community service volunteerism, you will see games, rooms and social work. You will see a variety of different things for teens and the intent, really, the way that I like to communicate it is to put kids into a bag with a good, strong role model, with a quality program, and then shake that bag up.
And the hope is that as a result, we will get a young person who’s a much better citizen by having participated in our program.
SCHMITZ: And having that community to support them.
SCHMITZ: It takes a village, and that’s the greatest example of how you build that around the youth that you serve. I have to ask now about the Opening Track Music Initiative. This sounds so cool. I know you’re just rolling this out. Would you mind sharing with the audience about this new initiative?
SMITH: Yes. Opening Track is a new music program that is being authored by Boys & Girls Clubs of Northeast Ohio. Our hope is at some point that this will become a National Boys & Girls Clubs of America program. But one of our board members, Jeff Tanner, who is the chief commercial and marketing officer for the Smuckers Company. He came to us and said, I have this vision of being able to impact young people utilizing music and was looking for a vehicle to actually do that through, and as a result of meeting with him and getting his vision.
Then sitting down, we came up with a music program that allows for us to utilize music in ways that we just hadn’t before. With Opening Track, which is being piloted right now in five of our locations throughout Northeast Ohio, young people get exposure to music in ways that they had not before. We utilize it in every department, and we’re utilizing music to help kids deal with everyday problems to help them achieve the CDC’s daily recommended amount of physical activity for young people. And we’re also using it as a platform to help them develop analytical and communication skills while also helping them to meet new people and have new experiences.
SCHMITZ: Oh, yes. Well, what a great place, Cleveland, to be the birthplace of this initiative.
SMITH: No better place in the country. With all these world class institutions, including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, including the Music Settlement, we are also working with the Cleveland Orchestra and the Great Lakes Theaters. All of these entities have committed to helping us with curriculum or by providing us with exposure trips. And they are just wonderful partners to have to help support our initiative.
SCHMITZ: Wonderful. We really look forward to following this, and we’ll make sure to include some links, too, in this podcast so that people can check out the news articles and get involved. Certainly, music is so powerful for all the reasons that you mentioned and just the ability to express oneself through music, again, in such a difficult time and the resiliency that our youth have shown. What a great gift. So thank you for sharing that. I really am excited about this.
SMITH: Yeah, we are, too. When you begin to think about it, the one thing that we know brings people together … it’s music. And we have such a wide scope in terms of the number of young people and diversity of where they come from that we serve. It is important for us to be able to have a young person in Wellington or Vermilion understand that the way that they heard a particular song or experienced a particular music video is comparable to the way that a young person in Cleveland or Akron also experienced or heard that particular song or video.
We feel like by doing that, we’re creating a bridge for understanding and unification. The music program is not just designed for kids to have fun, but it’s designed to give them opportunities to connect with one another in ways that maybe they wouldn’t normally.
SCHMITZ: What an incredible program! I know here at Oswald that we do have many touch points. I know we talked about just a couple of programs here, but I know you’re widespread and have everyday programming. I even ran in the 5 K a couple years ago and should get back in shape so I can get back on the course next year. But truly, what are the best or the first ways that individuals, companies can get involved? Those that connect to this cause, how do we get started?
SMITH: I would say the first thing is don’t overthink it. Like if you really want to help, we have a variety of different ways that you can engage now. That’s altered right now because of our COVID protocols. But we are moving in the direction of getting to a point where we will be allowing volunteers to come back into our site. I would say maybe the first thing to do would be to connect with our volunteer coordinator. We have a robust volunteer program that entails anything from large Group Day of Caring initiatives to an individual coming in and working in small groups with staff and kids.
So anyone that has an interest in anything such as the arts or sports or music, or even something as simple as allowing a young person to read to them in our Spark already readers plus programs allowing that young person to hear them read to them. All of those things make a difference. I would encourage you to go through the volunteer orientation and then get connected to a local club and allow that club to influence you. Don’t just look at what the needs are. Take a look at what your passions are, and sometimes those are the absolute best volunteers, people that come to the table.
Not that we don’t want our leads met through volunteerism, but when you come to the table with a passion, it is significantly easier to stay connected to the volunteerism. And so if you play piano, if you are really good at Scrabble or if you’re really good at Connect Four, if you just like to have fun, we have volunteer opportunities available for you.
SCHMITZ: Well, it feels that what you’re all about is making those connections… and connections that based on what you share, can last a lifetime.
SCHMITZ: I’m so thankful for your time today, Allen. I wish we could keep talking, but we will certainly keep in touch, and we will share all that information that you shared with us today. Thanks so much again.
SMITH: Well, we want to thank the good folks at Oswald for all that you’ve done for us and thank you very much for this opportunity.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and web formatting. Photos courtesy of Boys & Girls Clubs Northeast Ohio
Introducing the C to C podcast, an oscast by Oswald production
Commitment to Community is a core value of Oswald; it’s the foundation of who we are and the purpose behind all we do. The CtoC podcast provides a platform for nonprofit partners to share their stories and discuss the critical issues facing their clients. Our goal: create a halo effect of service and support, inspiring our audiences to align with causes that speak to them and take action in their companies and communities.
Hosted by Christina Capadona-Schmitz, VP and director of marketing communications and leader for community engagement, this podcast series features in-depth interviews and highlights the good works happening throughout our communities.