Creating a better future

Leominster Boys & Girls Club winner shows what a club could do for Gardner

By Andrew Mansfield
The Gardner News
July 2, 2016

LEOMINSTER – The motto for the Boys and Girls Club is “great futures start here.”

News staff photos by Andrew Mansfield Laura Jenny from the Boys and Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster, at 365 Lindell Ave. in Leominster, won the Youth of the Year award for Massachusetts clubs. Gardner has a Boys and Girls Club program at Gardner High School, with Fitchburg and Leominster being its parent club. Here, Jenny helps kids make cookies at the club in Leominster.

In Gardner’s case, a pilot program that ran this past school year has been looking to its parent club in Fitchburg and Leominster for how to build such an opportunity for its youth.

The parent club took another major step forward in living up to its saying this year, as member Laura Jenny, an incoming senior at Leominster High, won the Massachusetts Boys and Girls Club Youth of the Year Award for 2016.

“We’re blown away,” said Executive Director Donata Martin.

The hope is that someday Gardner can build its program to become a full club with the same success and its own building too. The pilot program was hosted at Gardner High School for a group of about 20 middle-school students, run by parent club staff.

In contrast, the Boys and Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster calls the former Julie Country Day School in Leominster home, giving adequate space for the close to 700 youths it serves ranging from ages 8 to 18.

Offerings include sports and recreation, math and science, music and drama, and plenty of community service opportunities.

“When we finally get a building in Gardner, this is what it will be like with all these programs,” said Executive Director Donata Martin.

The main focus of the club is STEM-based, standing for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, which Gardner followed as well with its pilot program, one example being teaching biology and conservation by raising brook trout and releasing them into Dunn Pond.

In Leominster, the club has its own robotics team that competes in regional tournaments. The club also explores emerging technology with its 3-D printing and design program, and keeps children connected with nature through activities such as beekeeping and hiking.

Founded in 2001, it has steadily expanded since, outgrowing two locations before settling at the old Country Day School, a move that was helped by an anonymous donor.

The decade-and-half of progress has culminated in Jenny’s Youth of the Year honor, which was awarded after competing in June at Westfield State University against about 40 others chosen as the best of the best from their respective clubs.

Jenny possesses a general disposition of modesty, exemplified by not preparing an acceptance speech for the moment, being caught a bit flat-footed when she was announced the winner.

“To be honest, it was hard to all take in, it’s still hard to take in,” she said. “When I heard my name called, I was just kind of shocked, staring at everybody.”

Jenny will compete in a regional competition later in the summer, another step before the national winner is chosen.

Winning for the state has come with a few notable perks, such as being scheduled to throw out the first pitch at a Red Sox game in September and plans for a private meeting with Gov. Charlie Baker.

With two full-time working parents, she started using the club as a place for her to go after school since she was 8 years old, and her little brother is also a member.

After being exposed to the welcoming atmosphere and science-related activities like gardening and astronomy, Jenny said the club became “so much more” than just a place to go, and credits staff for providing “overall guidance in life in every aspect you can think of.”

She’s a formally trained violin player and dabbles in piano as well, having space at the club to practice. For high school, she’s in the National Honor Society and is a volleyball captain.

Through the club, she’s volunteered to help people prepare their income taxes with the Montachusett Opportunity Council and interned at the Fitchburg Art Museum last summer.

This summer, she’s a junior staff member at the club helping out in any way she can, and is learning all about local government through interning for Mayor Stephen DiNatale.

She’s still got some time to figure out college plans, but is leaning toward a career in the health and medical field that leads to her helping others, following the same ethic she learned from the club.

“Basically all these opportunities I wouldn’t have had without the club. It would take me forever to talk about everything the club has done for me,” she said.

A few weeks ago, The Gardner Museum hosted an informational meeting with community leaders such as Mayor Mark Hawke, Superintendent Denise Clemons, and several business owners to discuss their desire for Gardner to have its own full club, with Jenny being among the speakers sharing their personal stories.

The Gardner program is expanding to eighth-graders this upcoming school year, being limited to fifth- through seventh-graders during the pilot run; and that move should bring next year’s number of participants up to about 30.

While the future still holds a lot to be determined for Gardner, its parent club and Jenny are giving a tangible example of what can be.

Her award shows that things are trending upward in Leominster, and all that positivity is growing legs to travel westward down Route 2 for a seat in the Chair City.