Bringing the future to fruition

GARDNER — The Boys & Girls Club of Gardner built upon its local support at a fundraiser held at the Colonial Hotel on Thursday evening, which included the announcement of plans for a permanent home.

Many different individuals and organizations in the community sponsored the dinner event, which also included an auction of donated items and prizes.

The club in Gardner launched in 2015 and serves grades five through eight. It operates every day after school at Gardner High School with a focus on STEAM curriculum, standing for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.

“We’re trying to prepare our children for the future,” Executive Director Donata Martin said, noting that there are many jobs in those fields left unfilled in the United States due to a lack of qualified candidates.

The club is also looking ahead to its own future. Affiliated with the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster, which has its own building in Leominster, the Gardner club from day one has wanted its own site as well.

The Gardner club primarily runs out of the Gardner High School library, with Martin saying right now 40 students are enrolled which is close to the capacity of that space.

In order to expand its programming and the number of children that can participate, the club has worked with community leaders to find a home for the future, which Mayor Mark Hawke spoke about.

“Right now, our plan is the permanent home is going to be Waterford Street School,” he said.

He explained his plan is to give the club the Waterford Street School, which the city won’t need once a new elementary school is built with the help of state funding.

The city is still working through the planning process with the state on the new school project, with the authorization of state and local funds for construction yet to come.

Should the new school project work out as planned, Hawke said, the City Council would need to give its approval for giving the site of Waterford Street School to the Boys & Girls Club, and there would also need to be a capital campaign for the club to raise money for improvements to the building.

Hawke expressed his support for the idea, saying the site has the space the club would desire, including outdoor fields, and that it will spare the city from having to deal with another vacant former school building.

Also in attendance at the fundraiser were local donors to the club, club staff as well as children who are members of the club and their parents.

Seventh-grader Christ Nader spoke about his experience in the club.

“The club is a good program because it helps me to keep my grades up,” he said.

As a working parent, Jen Collins said she cannot pick her daughter up every day after school, and would rather not send her home alone.

“Having this opportunity at the high school (where the club takes place) has been awesome,” she said.

Collins also spoke highly of the club’s curriculum and mix of indoor and outdoor activities, and added her daughter has made friends at the club.

At the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster, one of the staff members is Jon Blodgett, who is the program director for the teen center.

He oversees several of the activities offered there, such as the robotics team, in addition to managing day-to-day operations.

Blodgett was honored this year by the Boys & Girls Club organization, receiving the award for the outstanding program staff member in the northeast region, which includes 381 clubs spanning across 11 states and Puerto Rico.

Blodgett also has local roots, having graduated from Gardner High School in 2002 and subsequently from Mount Wachusett Community College.

In his job, he sees the value the Boys & Girls Club can provide youth, and thinks it would be a benefit to grow the club further in Gardner.

“There’s such a need for a program like this; a safe and structured environment where kids come to grow academically and socially,” he said.

Blodgett added the club also teaches drug prevention programs, which he said “there’s a need for in Gardner immensely.”

A few of the donors to the Gardner club have been inspired to do so at least in part due to losing their own child to drug addiction, including Patti Bergstrom, owner of The Velvet Goose in downtown Gardner, who emceed the fundraiser on Thursday.

“We cannot save our child but we are going to work hard to save others,” she said.

Heading into the event, Martin said the fundraiser had already generated over $30,000, with the proceeds from the auction and donations given at the event yet to be counted.

Since its founding, she said the support for the Gardner club has continued to increase.

“We’ve been really well-received by the children, the school system and the parents,” she said. “As we’ve grown in the community, we’ve picked up more partners and companies that are interested in being involved.”

Martin added that companies not only give money, but also have their staff volunteer at the club to share their expertise with the children.