On April 14th, 1967, the Boys’ Clubs of America opened its first chapter in the Austin area. It began in a repurposed church on West Joanna Street in Central Austin and only served a few dozen boys at the time. Today, after 50 years of growth and fluctuation, the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Austin Area have evolved to become the model of excellence in afterschool child care.
Much of the club’s recent success can be attributed to former CEO Mark Kiester. Spending much of his early career as an executive in the radio business and a director for the YMCA of Austin, Kiester was asked to step into a leadership role in 2005 for the Boys & Girls Club after the sudden passing of its former executive director, Dave Martin.
“It was a challenge to rebuild the organization,” expressed Kiester, candidly. “We were in tough times, but the policymakers believed in the mission so much that they knew they had to drive through it. Morale was low, but they just needed some leadership.” At his very first meeting with the board of directors, Kiester made sure everyone in the room understood his vision for the clubs’ future. “Onwards,” he said. “Put the past behind us and let’s move forwards.”
By partnering with local schools and community organizations, and by aggressively pursuing grants from programs like No Child Left Behind, the organization blossomed under his leadership. In his 12-year tenure, Kiester grew the club from three locations to 29, increased annual attendance from less than 1,000 to 12,500, and quadrupled the annual budget for the organization.
“We were opportunistic, and we were risk takers,” explained Kiester. “We didn’t have much in reserve, but we needed to grow to be successful. We got together with people in the community and said we need a club here, and we reached out to community organizations for funds and land to serve their neighborhoods. It was transformational because it happened so quick.”
As impactful as Kiester’s accomplishments have been for the organization’s growth, everyone from the top-down has praised the club’s model for child development as the key driver for success.
“The quality of our programs have helped us grow and gain recognition from the community about how vital this program is to them,” said Misti Potter, who replaced Mark Kiester as CEO this past March. “It is accurate to say that we have played an integral part in improving our teenager’s education and health.”
The Boys & Girls Clubs have three areas of focus for the children enrolled in its programs: healthy lifestyle choices, character development, and academic success. All activities that members participate in contain an element of these principles, whether it is receiving a meal at the club, learning to avoid criminal activity, or engaging in small group tutoring sessions.
The influence of this programming is apparent to its members well into adulthood. “I was detached from my community, sheltered from the issues that we faced and happily clueless as to what other people were going through,” reflected Marcus Walls, an alum of the Boys & Girls Club and runner-up to its Youth of the Year award in 2015. “My director at the time, Michael, did what was hard for any parent to do because they don’t see your behavior [outside of home], and he pulled me to the side to tell me what he saw in me. He told me that I was a leader. He also made me question ways that I was leading people for the wrong reasons, and why not try to make them follow me down the right path. I will never forget this moment when I felt a fire light. By my junior year, I joined a few organizations like the National Honor Society and my student council.”
Walls is now a sophomore studying Business Administration at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business. In his free time, he volunteers for the club’s Next Alumni Program, which allows past member to network and share opportunities for continued character development. “My club has made me who I am,” he said, “and the reason I work there now for my internship is that I could not imagine finding a better place to selflessly give as I have received.”
Along with the benefits for the children involved in the Boys & Girls Club programs, it has also provided the essential service of giving parents in the community a safe and positive environment for their kids during the workweek.
“During the summer of 2010, we needed a facility to watch my two elementary aged sons during the day while their father and I worked,” explained Monica Sanchez, a local fashion designer and communications specialist. “The Boys & Girls Club was in a convenient location on our way to work, at an affordable rate with a selection of activities that kept them entertained throughout the day. It gave us peace of mind knowing that our sons were in excellent, caring and engaged hands of the staff. The Club gives children from all walks of life the opportunity to interact with each other, learn from each other, and play with each other.”
Despite the new era of success the Boys & Girls Club is currently experiencing, the leadership knows it still has ways to go in serving all of Austin. “Our 50th anniversary marks a great change in Austin, but the level of youth poverty in our city is still significant,” noted Potter. “Overall poverty may be down, but it is still affecting lots of our kids. We need to get them out of poverty and give them opportunities. Our biggest goal is increasing average daily attendance numbers, and getting more kids to come more often. A laser focused curriculum is needed to retain them. We’ve grown so fast that we need to stabilize now, then reevaluate.”
The future looks bright on the Boys & Girls Club’s 50th year of service in the Austin community, and its large footprint on the city has undoubtedly shaped the lives of many generations of children. “The club is not about place, but people,” mused Kiester. “It amazes me every day what our clubs do to help kids and make them successful — it’s awe-inspiring.”