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After 50 years, A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club remains ‘family’ for many

A child enters the A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club in Birmingham, Ala., on Friday, July 12, 2017. (Mark Almond/preps@al.com)

By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times

A bulletin board display is shown at the A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club in Birmingham, Ala., on Friday, July 12, 2017. (Mark Almond/preps@al.com)

The gymnasium at the A.G. Gaston Boys and Girls Club Inc. (AGGBGC) was lively as act after act performed during the annual talent show. Children clapped and cheered as they watched fellow members sing, dance, rap, play instruments, and display numerous other skills.

The beauty of it all—no judging, and everyone cheered or sang along to support the performers.

“We’re a family,” said Frank Adams Jr. CEO of AGGBGC. “This is a judgement-free zone, where the kids can really be themselves.”

On August 10, the AGGBGC will celebrate 50 years of service to the metro area during an event at the Birmingham Museum of Art. The club tutors, mentors, and helps more than 1,400 young people from Birmingham and Bessemer, helping them to become productive, successful adults who support their communities. The organization has three locations: the flagship Kirkwood R. Balton Clubhouse in West End, the Center for a New Generation at Hayes Middle School, and the Southside Homes site.

Legendary Birmingham businessman Arthur George “A.G.” Gaston opened doors to the youth organization in 1967 and stated in his later years that the club was the “brightest” moment in his long, illustrious career.

Kids dance during a talent show at the A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club in Birmingham, Ala., on Friday, July 12, 2017. (Mark Almond/preps@al.com)

Life Skills

“It means a lot to know that the club has been around for 50 years,” said Ella McCain, 92, who remains a staunch benefactor of and advocate for the organization. “Many, many boys and girls … have served in all phases of the community. They’ve learned life skills they could never have gotten anywhere else.”

Gabrielle Dunlap, 19, who was named the AGGBGC 2016 Youth of the Year, began attending the club when she was 6 years old. The Midfield High School graduate, known as Gabby, is still active with the organization and currently works as a mentor.

“My club is home for me, and I really couldn’t see myself doing anything else, so coming back here is service for me,” said Gabby, who is now entering her sophomore year at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. “My [older] brothers played football here and were members, as well, and I would come down with my mom to drop my brothers off. They made it seem fun, so I definitely wanted to come down myself.”

Kids play a computer game at the A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club in Birmingham, Ala., on Friday, July 12, 2017. (Mark Almond/preps@al.com)

“All Friends”

Reggie, 19—a six-year AGGBGC member and current volunteer—credits the organization with helping him grow and providing lessons he did not learn in school.

“When I first got here, I really didn’t know what a summer camp or place like this would provide,” he said. “As time went along, I grew to love A.G. It showed me that you can be you. … There’s no judging. We’re all friends. It also taught me a lot of life lessons that I carry with me now.”

AGGBGC programs like Passport to Manhood, designed to help young men understand what it means to be a man, have been beneficial for Reggie and many others. A similar program for girls, Smart Girls, is designed to help young women understand the challenges of being a woman.

Other initiatives, such as the Keystone Club, challenge members to look beyond the organization and focus on teaching community service, becoming more civic-minded to better understand local government, and promoting the importance of a clean environment.

The AGGBGC has helped in other ways, too. One instance involved a young Hispanic girl whose parents were part of the Miami drug trade. She ended up in Birmingham in foster care, and the Alabama Department of Human Resources notified the club. The woman, now about 20, received tutoring, took an English as a Second Language class, earned her GED, and subsequently joined the military.

“We think we have a very proud history as an organization that has provided 50 years of service to a particular segment of the community,” said Adams. “We haven’t strayed from our path, and we continue to focus on the children we serve.”

Kalem (cq.), 10, plays a game of foosball at the A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club in Birmingham, Ala., on Friday, July 12, 2017. (Mark Almond/preps@al.com)

50 Years … and Counting

The 50th anniversary celebration will pay homage to the club’s history, said AGGBGC Director of Resource Development Rose Walker.

“Just to give it a different spin this year. We’re going to have an opportunity to have fun. We’re going to have a band, Just a Few Cats, so our guests can dance and unwind a little bit,” she said. “This is a major milestone for us, being that it’s 50 years. We’re really working to make this a good event for everyone.”

The August 10 celebration also will honor alumni and sponsors—including renowned youth advocate and former Birmingham-Southern College President Gen. Charles Krulak. Boys and Girls Club of America President and CEO Jim Clark will be the keynote speaker.

Adams hopes the AGGBGC’s next 50 years are even better: “I’m hoping to see a level of impact that is clearly transformational and can be seen clearly by the community.”

“I hope we become more visible, more accessible, and more impactful in the lives we serve. I want to see the community rally around our young people at a much higher level than before and continue to invest in our kids spiritually, emotionally, and financially. I want to see people truly understand the concept of youth development. And I want the kids to understand that, no matter where they are, they’re important to the community and somebody really cares about them.”