First year of after-school program touted; need for a building discussed
By Andrew Mansfield
The Gardner News
June 24, 2016
GARDNER – Victoria Fils-Aime said she was taught as a child that she couldn’t make it.
She was shy and felt “broken, ugly and weak,” as a teenager; but that all changed when she discovered the trademark symbol of two hands coming together painted on the brick building of her local Waltham Boys and Girls Club.
“It helped me see my full potential,” she said. “If it wasn’t for the club, I don’t know where I would be.”
Fils-Aime was one of a number of speakers at an informational meeting about the Boys and Girls Club held at The Gardner Museum on Wednesday evening.
The occasion was an effort to build on the momentum created this past school year with the opening of a pilot program in Gardner that gave 20 middle-school students a positive after-school outlet, thanks to staff from the Fitchburg and Leominster chapter.
Fils-Aime won the 2015 Massachusetts Boys and Girls Club Youth of the Year award and is now a scholarship student at Brandeis University.
Donata Martin, executive director for the Fitchburg and Leominster club, said for the upcoming school year the Gardner program, which is run at Gardner High School, will add at least 10 more students.
As with Fitchburg and Leominster, Gardner’s program is focused on STEM activities, standing for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
An advisory committee comprised of community stakeholders such as Mount Wachusett Community College President Dan Asquino, Mayor Mark Hawke, Superintendent Denise Clemons, along with several business owners have worked along with Martin to make Gardner’s program a reality.
“We’ve been trying to work for a couple years to bring a club to Gardner and we finally did,” Martin said. “Hopefully in another few years we’ll have our own building.”
In order to do that, committee members and Martin are planning fundraising efforts to one day meet that ultimate goal of a permanent home for Gardner, to follow in the footsteps of its parent club.
The Fitchburg and Leominster club has its own building on Lindell Avenue in Leominster, allowing for more space and possibilities for more than 600 kids.
A few of the advisory committee members spoke and a consistent message was that a club would be of considerable benefit, particularly with the increased prevalence of substance abuse in recent years and tough economic conditions.
James Fletcher, owner of WJ Graves Construction in Templeton, and his wife, Joyce, told the tragic story of losing their son Kevin in February 2014 to drug addiction.
“I ran into the bathroom, I screamed, I wept,” she said about learning of Kevin’s death. “My heart was broken.”
When the parents were approached to help with the Gardner club, they saw it as an opportunity to promote giving youth a supportive atmosphere.
“We weren’t able to save his life, but Joyce and I are committed to saving others,” said James.
After they spoke, Martin brought up that the Fitchburg and Leominster club recently received a grant from the Community Foundation of North Central Massachusetts, to start a program focused on preventing drug and alcohol use, as well as premature sexual activity.
Also speaking was the 2016 winner of the Massachusetts Boys and Girls Club Youth of the Year award, Laura Jenny, a Leominster High School senior from the Fitchburg and Leominster club.
She talked about how she and her younger brother would have otherwise been left to “fend for ourselves” at a young age if it weren’t for the club, because of how much both their parents worked.
Asquino was also involved in the founding of the Fitchburg and Leominster club back in 2001, having benefited from a boys club in his hometown of New Bedford as a child.
“I was kind of as a young person an aggressive person. I didn’t necessarily do what my parents wanted,” he said.
He mentioned benefitting from sports offerings, also saying Boys and Girls Clubs open doors for youth coming from a poor family.
While Asquino said his parents worked hard, the family still didn’t have a lot growing up.
At the Fitchburg and Leominster club, children can be members for $20 a month and there are scholarship opportunities for those that need assistance; Martin said “we never turn a child away.”
The pilot program in Gardner this past school year was free for students.
Closing out the meeting was Mayor Mark Hawke. Having grown up in Gardner, he recalled having summer jobs at places like Simplex, saying “those aren’t around anymore.”
While he touched on not believing the city is completely bereft of positive opportunities for youth, he sees a need for more to be offered to them.
“I’m absolutely convinced that that they requires this,” he said. “We need a center, we need something focused. I’m going to put everything I have into this because I believe in this.”
Anyone looking to donate and contribute to the effort of expanding Gardner’s club can contact Martin. Her number is 978-534-3091 ext. 15, and email is email@example.com.