The staff at Minneapolis’ Southside Village Boys and Girls Club is committed to supporting every kid who walks through their door. But life for some of those kids is clearly tougher than it is for others.
The club, which for a $5 yearly membership fee provides kids ages 5-18 with a safe, year-round place to play; study; relax; and eat homemade meals, also provides a team of staff members who occasionally offer a listening ear for children who’ve dealt with a variety of traumas, from the everyday to tragedies tougher than those faced by most adults.
“We have kids who are struggling more than others,” said Stephanie Siegel, Southside Village program director. “Some have experienced major traumas. We have a kid who witnessed a shooting in his back yard. He can’t walk home alone: He’s too afraid. And we have kids who’ve lost relatives to gang violence.”
Some Southside Village staff members and volunteers — including Siegel, who has a degree in child psychology — have extensive training in supporting children who’ve faced tough life situations, but others’ professional experience is more limited.
“I came to this job with a wealth of knowledge in mental health diagnoses,” Siegel said. “But we don’t require that type of background to work here. Some staff positions require a four-year degree. Some don’t. What I’m really looking for is people with youth-work experience. That’s the most important thing.”
All the experience in the world can sometimes fall short when interacting with a kid facing serious emotional or behavioral problems, Siegel said. In these cases, staff members and volunteers often struggle to identify the best techniques for helping club members live healthy lives.
“Our motto is: ‘Great futures start here,’” Siegel said. “We really pride ourselves on that. But sometimes our staff could use a little extra help in helping kids succeed.”
Earlier this month, a little extra help for Boys and Girls Club arrived — in the form of a specially targeted free interactive counseling toolkit designed by a team of volunteers at the American Counseling Association (ACA). April is National Counseling Awareness Month, and each year the Alexandria, Virginia-based ACA, an association of more than 56,000 professional counselors working in various practice settings, sponsors a campaign designed to raise understanding of the role of counselors.
“This year, we decided we wanted to give back to the community rather than putting out a bunch of inspirational content,” said Amber McLaughlin, ACA’s communications director.
With that goal in mind, ACA formed a partnership with Boys and Girls Clubs of America, developing the toolkit with the unique needs of their members, staff and volunteers in mind. The toolkit — which includes podcasts and tip sheets — was developed from a list of questions and requests compiled from Boys and Girls Clubs front-line workers. Topics covered in the toolkit include: working with youth who experience grief and loss; working within a multicultural community; working with youth with disabilities; understanding youth bullying; working with youth from military families; inclusion and well-being of LGBTQ youth; suicide prevention; developmental characteristics of teens; and listening and communications skills for mentors.
“Boys and Girls Clubs was a natural fit for us,” McLaughlin said. “We have members who have volunteered for Boys and Girls Clubs for years. We didn’t put together a bunch of random philosophies. We are giving them serious counseling skills they can use on a daily basis.”
A safe place for kids
Founded in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1860, Boys and Girls Clubs of America now serves 4 million kids at more than 4,000 locations around the United States and at U.S. military bases worldwide. Boys and Girls Clubs of the Twin Cities have been in operation for more than 80 years, serving some 12,000 boys and girls in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods. There are eight clubs in the Twin Cities (five in Minneapolis and three in St. Paul). Statewide there are 65 Boys and Girls Clubs. The Twin Cities Boys and Girls Clubs also operates a summer camp in Mound.
The partnership with ACA is brand new this month, but Siegel said that her staff is excited to start exploring the trainings included in the toolkit.
“Our staff locally has been asking for something like this for a long time,” she said. “We serve so many kids, and unfortunately, some come from difficult backgrounds.”
Siegel explained that Boys and Girls Clubs of the Twin Cities are an “inclusive environment,” meaning that all children who come — regardless of disability or background — are welcome to attend. This is a good thing, she said, but it also means that interacting with a wide range of kids can present some unique challenges. She hopes that the toolkit trainings will help workers gain confidence and skills in their interactions with club members.
“We have kids from everywhere,” Siegel said. “A partnership like this is good for a lot of staff that doesn’t have that training in mental health. It helps them understand where kids are coming from and why they may be acting the way they are.”
The fact that the tools are all online and interactive is also appealing, because busy volunteers and staff can view them at times that are convenient for their schedules.
“At my club we have seven full-time staff during the school year,” Siegel said. “We serve an average of 100 kids a day. We also have a great relationship with a pretty large base of volunteers. We’ve offered staff trainings, but our new partnership with ACA gives everyone an opportunity to take part on their own time.”
Change with the times
Siegel said that in order to survive and thrive for more than a century, Boys and Girls Clubs of America has had to be an organization that is willing to make changes that reflect the needs of its members. One of the most obvious examples of this is the name itself — in 1990, the club, then known as the Boys Club of America, became the Boys and Girls Clubs. Other changes have been less public, she said, but club inclusivity and open understanding of the struggles many young people face has evolved with society.
“Just like the kids we see each day, we reflect the world around us,” Siegel said.
McLaughlin said the ACA toolkit reflects that awareness.
“In the past, Boys and Girls Clubs programs had focused on physical health, exercise and nutrition,” she said. “In recent years, they’ve made a shift to addressing the holistic view of health and wellness, of balancing physical health with emotional well-being.”
Because Boys and Girls Club staff and volunteers, like those at Southside Village, see these societal changes firsthand, the ACA tools provided focus on topical issues rather than general platitudes.
“Volunteers and staff are on the front lines when it come to engaging with America’s youth,” McLaughlin said. “The are out there everyday, seeing raw emotions, seeing bullying take place. They are dealing with LGBTQ issues. They are dealing with violence and loss. They are there to support these youth, who a lot of times may not be getting a lot of outside support or encouragement.”
Siegel appreciates the focus on real-life issues. “The topics in the materials are really applicable to what we are doing here on the ground with the kids,” she said.
The ACA’s goal in this project was to make as many people as possible aware of the power of counseling and human interaction.
“We are all about getting society to view mental health with the same acceptance as they do physical health,” McLaughlin said. “We wanted to give Boys and Girls Clubs tools and insights that will empower them. Empowerment is at the heart of what counselors do.”
Home is where the heart is, and at Southside Village, Siegel said that the goal is to create a space where kids feel comfortable, accepted and free to talk about their concerns. If the tools provided by the ACA help staff and volunteers meet that goal, she will be grateful.
“Some of our kids look at the club as a second home. Actually, they look at our staff as an extension of their family. I truly value my job. Every day I know how important my role is. We are really able to make a difference with these kids.”