HAINES CITY – What began 23 years ago in the basement of Jenkins Middle School has evolved into a thriving program that serves about 45 kids every day.
The Northridge/Haines City Boys & Girls Club is making a difference for children in the area.
“(We make a difference) with a solid curriculum to help encourage and shape the minds of our kids, while providing a safe place and engaging caring staff,” said Curtis Reddick, director for the Haines City location. “We provide a lifelong experience that has seen a couple of generations.”
The location has 11 staff members – including three certified teachers and three high school student volunteers.
“In 2000, the city (of Haines City) graciously let us move into our current facility,” Reddick said. “They have embraced the Haines City Club since.”
The Northridge/Haines City club is located at 704 Avenue C.
When the school day ends, about 600 kids total arrive at the eight different Boys and Girls Club locations scattered around the county – including the Haines City location. The students immediately disperse into groups to rotate between four areas of importance during "power hour."
That power hour is divided between academics, socialization, sports and playing, and nutrition. The academics group fumbles through their backpacks for homework assignments. Staff and volunteers look over the kids’ shoulders at their homework to discuss questions and answers to the myriad of subjects.
Another group pours outside choosing teams, shouting rules and playing games.
Still another group happily laughs and talks with friends sharing secrets and telling stories. Later, parents begin to arrive, and the kids pile into cars with full bellies, having just eaten hot, nutritious meals.
"We serve the whole kid," explains Steve Giordano, the President and Chief Executive Officer for Boys & Girls Clubs of Polk County. "One mother told me that because her daughter comes to Boys & Girls Club, it allows them time to get to know each other instead of worrying about homework and dinner."
Giordano, who has been with the Polk division since just last year, and the board of directors decided recently to merge the seven locations into the Boys & Girls Clubs of Polk County. Plus, they determined the Bartow area was underserved and recently opened a location there.
"One of the first things we did after merging the clubs was enhance our mission," Giordano said. "Our previous goal was to help 2,500 kids a year — but with 725,000 people in the county, we felt like we could do more, so we increased it to 10,000."
Still, until social distancing and other COVID-19 related factors are a thing of the past, they will be pleased with the number of kids they reach every day currently.
According to Giordano, there are 100,000 families at or below the poverty line in the county. "Those people are our customers," he explained. "The ones who don't have lots of options for after school care."
The Board and Giordano agreed Bartow was underserved and needed a location of its own. And, although things are far from final, leaders are considering Fort Meade for the next branch location.
The county seat location opened its doors in October and has 50 kids in the after-school program so far.
"We are excited to have such a positive addition to our community,” said Leo Longworth, a community representative and longtime member of the Bartow City Commission.
When the pandemic hit, Giordano and his team went to work. With the recently acquired food license in hand, over the next eight months, they fed 112,000 meals to those in need.
“In March, we started making grab-and-go meals, but no one was getting out to pick them up,” Giordano said. “So, we started delivering them – not just to our families, but others as well.”
In April and May, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Polk County fed more than 28,000 people each month.
“That is what I am most proud of,” he said.
It's easy to get your six to 16-year old in one of the Polk County locations. They have to fall into that age bracket and register in early spring for the summer program and/or summer before the school year begins.
Since the Clubs have expanded their care, more employees needed to be hired. They now have 85 employees — five percent of which are part-time and 90 percent are paid positions. Boys & Girls Clubs annually serve 4.6 million young people, through membership and community outreach, at 4,738 Clubs throughout the country and BGCA-affiliated Youth Centers on U.S. military installations worldwide.
The Boys & Girls Clubs depend on donations as well as grants. For example, the Fore the Kids golf tournament is an annual fundraiser for the Boys & Girls Clubs.
For more information, visit bcgpolk.org.