100 Years Young
As the Boys & Girls Club celebrates its centennial anniversary, we take a walk down memory lane to see what makes the club that has helped so many children (including its share of budding politicians, sports stars and local officials) just so special
The Greenwich Boys & Girls Club
may be celebrating its 100th birthday, but step inside and you find the heart of an eight-year-old. Iris Shi is a first-grader from central Greenwich. Like more than two hundred other children, she comes here nearly every day after school. Ask her what she likes about the club, and she provides a literal running monologue. From room-to-room she follows closely on your heels to tell you about the turtle she made from yarn, the Sisters Grimm book she just finished, and how her brother Jason is one of the club’s chess grandmasters. Just try packing as much energy in a month of living as Iris does in a single answer.
“I like playing tag, turtle tag and mosquito tag,” she explains. “I play turtle tag at school, and mosquito tag here. Mosquito tag is like regular tag, except when you get tagged in mosquito tag, you have to pretend you’re itching.”
Then there’s nine-year-old Ahmed Sambo, like Iris here at the club he’s waiting for his ride home. Ahmed likes everything about the club, even doing homework in a specially-designated room on the second floor of the club’s Horseneck Lane complex. It’s a way of racking up “power hours,” which, when added up, means an ice-cream party in his honor.
What’s his favorite part of being at the club? “Making friends,” he says. “There are so many kids to make friends with.”
Like most of the kids at the club on late weekday afternoons, thirteen-year-old Moises Cebanos of central Greenwich waits for his working parents to pick him up for dinner. Club activities are structured around a fairly rigid formula of doing something different every forty minutes. Moises doesn’t feel confined. “You have more freedom here than you do hanging around the house,” he says.
The other day, Moises was playing a club-league basketball game in the gymnasium, a sunlight-streaked space of cinderblock and parquet largely unchanged since the building went up in 1939. His parents left work early to watch, a huge moment for Moises since he only just started playing a few months ago. He credits his two best friends at the club, fellow middle-schoolers Karl Souffrant and Matteus Chaves, with mentoring him.
“With everything at the club, you try to go at a different level to get better,” Moises says. “That’s something I have learned to do here, to push myself.” Matteus and Karl stand beside him. “Everything Moises is learning in basketball, he’s helping me learn as well,” Karl says. “He’s getting better, so I’m getting better.”
Just take those words, multiply it by several thousand, and you have the club’s operating philosophy in practice. Activities include afternoons of supervised recreation and educational programs, evenings of team sports, and summers at the club’s backcountry home-away-from-home, seventy-seven-acre Camp Simmons off Lake Avenue. Call the Boys & Girls Club what you will; just don’t call it day
care. “We don’t like that term,” says Bob DeAngelo, the club’s executive director since 1998. “It implies babysitting. We like to feel we are character-building.”
Bob is a living link to the club’s roots as the Greenwich Boys Club, which was how the club operated from its founding in 1910 until it admitted girls in 1985. Bob was a second-generation club kid in the 1960s who became a star swimmer in the big indoor pool. His father, Sal, went to the club back when it was on Railroad Avenue.
Peter Tesei began his time as a club kid around 1977. The future First Selectman from Glenville usually went a couple of times a week, and admits to some awkwardness. “If you were a shy kid, that was part of the experience you had, to assert yourself and develop self-confidence,” he recollects.
Former club kids talk of idyllic afternoons flipping baseball cards, marching to the Island Beach ferry, and splash fights in the pool. Winston Robinson, a manager at the Greenwich Housing Authority and a club kid in the 1950s and early ’60s, credits staffers like Tut Schinto and Weeds Camillo with providing solid direction.
“All they had to do was put their hands in their mouth and whistle, and everything would stop,” he says. “Not like today, where you’d go home and tell your mother.”
“Are you kidding?” laughs Fred Camillo, today a state representative from Greenwich’s 151st district, and a club kid from Cos Cob in the 1960s and ’70s. “You told your parents you got yelled at, and they’d want to know what you did wrong. It was a different time.”
“There was an element of not only respect but fear with the staff,” notes David Ridberg, Greenwich’s police chief and a Byram club kid from the late ’60s to ’76. “You had to have that to keep order.”
And so the club staff kept order, and in the process imparted life lessons. George Bodenheimer, today president of ESPN and ABC Sports, remembers going to the club for two or three years in the late ’60s when his family lived in Old Greenwich: “I think it helped instill values for later in life; the two I remember most being respecting people and sportsmanship.”
“It taught you discipline, taught you how to get along with other kids,” Sal DeAngelo explains.
One specific example of the Boys Club’s impact is Keith Ward, today a bank executive at Morgan Stanley but in 1969 the frustrated product of a sometimes troubled upbringing who found at Horseneck Lane “literally and immediately a home away from home.
“My most memorable growth opportunity came around 1974, when I was twelve,” he says, his voice still husky from the memory. “My Mom had given me my grandfather’s jackknife, and I took it to the club. For some reason, I cut up all the window screens in the game room. Someone saw me and told on me. I was confronted and I lied about it. I was busted. I had to admit the truth, go out and make amends. I took up a paper route to pay for each one of the windows. In moments like that, you learn about consequences, that your
behavior has an impact on others.”
Ward worked hard to make amends. In 1979, he was named the Greenwich Boys Club Boy of the Year and eventually Boy of the Year for the entire Northeastern United States. A photograph of him with President Jimmy Carter hangs in a place of prominence in the club library. Ward today sits on the club’s board of directors.
The club has always been a remarkably diverse place, geographically drawing from all parts of town, if more heavily from the center and western end. On any given day, a healthy blend of Hispanics, Asians, blacks and whites flows through the corridors while mixing easily with one another.
Little is known of the club’s first decade of operation, when it occupied a small building near the present YMCA on East Putnam Avenue, but a photo survives of the location featuring youngsters both black and white. Their faces are hard, but their hands rest on each others’ shoulders, an image of casual solidarity.
“The Boys Club never had any discrimination,” recalls Robert Fox, a club kid in the 1930s. “Black, white, what-ever, it didn’t make any difference.”
“You know how it is at some places,” Bob DeAngelo chuckles. “When they take the group photos, you take time assembling the kids because you want to make it as diverse as possible. Here, it’s just take the picture. We do diversity every day.”
Though a large percentage of the children at the Boys & Girls Club are said to be at or below the poverty line, middle-class and working families are also represented, and affluent ones, too. Ages range from six through high school, though the concentration is on the lower end of the age spectrum, especially in the afternoon.
“We see ourselves as an agency with an educational component, an arts component, and a character component,” notes Sukie McFadden, the club’s assistant executive director.
With middle-school children, the club may be strongest with its evening itinerary, organized sports like basketball, hockey and swimming.
Don Palmer is the program director at the club. “It gets very specific after 6 p.m.,” he says. “There’s coed basketball for the middle schoolers in the gym, water ballet for elementary schoolkids at the pool, and kickball in the annex.”
Both Palmer and McFadden have worked at the club for many years, long enough to remember some of their fellow staffers when they were still club kids. There have been just four executive directors since 1920, and a tradition of continuity runs across the organization. Mike
Gerald, the athletic coordinator, spent much of his boyhood here and tries to bring that sensibility to his work. “If a kid’s face is long, you ask what the problem is,” Gerald says. “When we have a game here, we sit down for the first fifteen minutes and talk about a life situation.”
Amy Bologna is another returnee. In her club-kid days she was a star swimmer. Now a teacher at the Stanwich School, she is also a volunteer coach on the club swim team, the Barracudas. What keeps her going? “It’s the need to keep the club going,” she answers. “If the club couldn’t be an essential part of the community, the community would be at a great loss. And obviously I love to work with these kids. I love to see the smiles on their faces when the light bulb goes on. See them finish that turn, touch that wall, and have the journey I did.”
Stephanie Pugliese used to play basketball in the gym. Now she is the club’s educational coordinator, conducting classes in creative writing and “goals for graduation.” There’s a strong emphasis on getting kids to do their homework. “I have ten kids who can’t go on the computer until they do their homework,” she says. “This is the one constant in most of these children’s lives.”
Is it working? It seems to be. “If this wasn’t here, I’d be home with nothing to do,” says Brian Merida, a nine-year-old from Cos Cob. “Here I can draw, play in the gym, go on the computer. There are friends to play with. And the adults are really nice. They don’t boss you around. They really help you out if you have trouble with your homework.”
In the old days kids traded baseball cards. Today they compare Silly Bandz. Other things have changed more dramatically. In 2005 the club completed a $16 million renovation project that not only improved the aging pool and hockey-rink space but allows the club to more aggressively run educational activities.
With minimal dues of just $20 a year, the club needs local residents to help keep it operational. (Many do, from the Wiggin family donating $250,000 for the Horseneck Lane building in the 1930s to the contributions made over the years to the club’s college scholarship programs.) “In the 1980s, the club had a series of fundraising dinners one year, The Spring Festival of Dinners, with a big cocktail party here followed by various dinners held across town on the same night,” club Development Director Kathy Seiden explains. “The Helmsleys hosted one. We still do that, though it’s only the one dinner now.”
Bob DeAngelo points to the club’s new athletic field, a fenced-in sward of artificial turf extending out toward I-95. It was a gift from resident and New York Mets Chief Operating Officer Jeff Wilpon and the New York Mets. “Jeff calls it Greenwich’s welcome mat,” Bob laughs.
Not all changes have been happy ones. A couple of years ago, during the worst of the recession, the Club had to let several employees go. Today it proceeds carefully with new ideas. Tom Ortwein, president of the club’s board of directors, sees fitness and nutrition as future to-do items.
“It’s about really educating kids about what they can do to help themselves,” Ortwein says. “Making sure that when the kids are home, they are able to help themselves and their families get out of the cycle of high-sugar, high-caloric foods.”
However much the place has changed in 100 years, something basic remains unaltered, a commitment to every kid the club looks after.
“It’s pretty simple to me,” Ward explains. “The club is not just for kids in crisis, but for all kids. All kids need help, especially in Greenwich. It’s really about love. For me, they loved me too much to let me stay the same. They loved me until I could love myself.”