Tucked away in a clubhouse along West Fowlkes Street, the Boys & Girls Club of Franklin is impacting children from the inside out.
With weekday programs and activities designed to promote wellness and success in children throughout the city, the Boys & Girls Club of Franklin focuses on supporting the whole child, not only in academics and physical health, but in mental and emotional wellbeing, too.
On the surface, the organization acts as an after-school program, providing transportation from local schools to its own buildings, where staff members meet the kids and help them with their homework. But the nonprofit goes beyond what these types of programs typically provide, spinning education into fun activities, providing nutritious snacks and sometimes meals, mentoring children through the difficulties of growing up, and even offering future-building opportunities in the summer.
Marquita Solomon, lead youth development staff at the Franklin Clubhouse, has been supporting Franklin kids in these ways for about two years now. She was initially drawn to the Boys & Girls Club because, when her son first started attending, she noticed new faces coming to greet him on a regular basis, new staff members replacing those who had left. Solomon wanted to provide some stability.
“A lot of people use the Boys & Girls Club as a stepping stool until they get something more permanent, which isn’t a good thing at all,” she said. “Most of the employees were people that were in college or in between jobs.”
She quickly worked her way up to her current position, where she oversees staff members who work with the younger kids while she works with the teens.
She said that health and wellness, starting with food, is a major focus for the organization. Not only does the club provide snacks with whole grains and 100% juice, but they teach the kids why these ingredients are healthier than heavily processed alternatives.
Additionally, the older kids in the organization’s Torch Clubs and Keystone Clubs sometimes organize cooking classes for the younger kids.
“It has to be something healthy,” Solomon said. “We try to do anything between three and five ingredients that does not have to be microwaved or put in the oven, like something that they can whip up really quickly.”
Solomon said that the food provided to the kids also sometimes goes beyond nutrition and into necessity.
“Research shows that most of the kids that are on a free or reduced (-price) lunch — they only eat at school,” Solomon said. “There may be times that they cannot afford to eat at home, so we’re just extending that as well because we’ll provide an afternoon snack, and sometimes we’ll provide a dinner.”
For children who may not always have something to eat at home, the meals also provide a sense of belonging since every kid, regardless of their situation, receives the same food.
Providing food in a group setting can also help younger kids become a bit more adventurous, Solomon said. She has seen the positive effects of peer pressure in her groups.
“We have a share table, so if it’s something that you don’t like or you don’t want, you put it on the share table, then someone has the ability to go and get one item off the share table,” she said. “Normally, if you don’t like it, and then you see your friends eating it, you go back to the share table and get what you just put on there.”
Additionally, when it comes to promoting physical health, Solomon said that they tend to turn their exercise into games to get the kids interested and keep them engaged.
“Most boys don’t really care about the health aspect,” she said. “But they’re OK with the exercising because we mask it as games.”
The club has also recently started partnering with the local YMCA. The kids can go to the gym on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and the Y offers lifeguard training and swimming lessons to those who are interested.
However, physical wellness is not the only component of health. The Boys & Girls Club has two programs to promote positive habits through adolescence — Smart Moves, for girls, and Passport to Manhood, for boys. Not only do these kids learn how to take care of their physical bodies, but they also are taught leadership skills, how to process their feelings and how to ease into adulthood with maturity.
As the teens progress through these programs, they grow closer to the staff and their peers, and they are given opportunities to reflect on their lives through essay writing or journaling. Denise Carothers, the director of resource development, said these programs can help staff and parents become more aware of the struggles a child is having.
“A lot of times, we’re able to combat situations because, in Smart Girls or Passport to Manhood, sometimes they may be asked to journal or write an essay,” she said. “There have been a lot of times where an issue may have come up out of that, and we can address it, talk to parents, go to the health department and find those resources they need.”
Sometimes these struggles come to the surface more organically. For Solomon, that most often happens because of her established relationship with “her babies.”
“Because I know my babies — I call them my babies — I can tell if they’re having a rough day, and they know that, at any point in time, somebody can tap me on my shoulder and say, ‘Hey, I need to talk,’ and I’ll step out right then and there, and we’ll sit in the hallway and talk,” she said.
Solomon said she loves that the kids feel comfortable enough to open up to her, and she’s glad she gets the opportunity to speak into their lives. She that because the parents of many of these kids are out working until later in the day, staff members can play a kind of parental role for those hours between school and pick-up.
“By the children being here at the Boys & Girls Club, it actually keeps them from being at home by themselves unsupervised or being at home with siblings, and they still get that social element that they need as well as that parental guidance,” she said.
As Solomon has worked with the organization for the past couple of years, she has seen that the more often the kids come to the club, the more they seem to flourish, not only academically but also in strength of character. Her goal is to be a mentor and a friendly face to every child who walks through the door.
“(The club) gives them an opportunity to still be themselves in a controlled environment,” Solomon said. “They know my rules, regulations, but at the same time, they know that I allow them to be open, and I’m not judgmental, and I’m always a listening ear.”
To learn more about the Boys & Girls Club, visit bgcmt.org.