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Waterville Boys and Girls Club 100th anniversary highlights role in local community

Brianna Michaud, Maine Youth of the Year, speaking at the Waterville Boys and Girls Club annual appeal dinner at the Alfond Youth and Community Center, for the organization's 100 year anniversary.
Kaitlyn Budion
Maine Public
Brianna Michaud, Maine Youth of the Year, speaking at the Waterville Boys and Girls Club annual appeal dinner at the Alfond Youth and Community Center, for the organization's 100 year anniversary.

When Brianna Michaud started her first swim lesson at the Waterville Boys and Girls Club at the age of five, she remembers how scared she was, because her cousin had recently drowned.

"I was kind of terrified of getting into the water," she said. "But the lifeguards kind of worked with me and I worked my way up to becoming more comfortable swimming. And then after that, I just love swimming, I was so confident with it."

For some families, membership at a Boys and Girls Club may start and end with swimming lessons. But not Michaud’s. Instead, her parents encouraged her to pick one of the club’s many activities. There are three gymnasiums, three pools, two baseball fields and more than 40 athletics programs for adults and youth.

Michaud picked karate.

"I remember that same day, I saw an older kid sitting in one of the areas and I was like, 'Wow, he looks so cool,' like he had his karate gi and his belt on and everything, and I was like, 'that's exactly what I want to do,'" she said.

And after that, Michaud was hooked. Now 18, she has taken advantage of many of the programs at the club. She earned a second degree black belt through the karate dojo, and now works as a councilor with younger kids.

She's also been recognized as the Maine Youth of the Year.

"I would spend all day here if I could, you know, and so just being able to be that welcoming environment for the kids that come here is really special to me, and I'm glad that I'm able to provide that in their lives as well, and just be a role model for them," Michaud said.

Founded in 1924, the Waterville organization was originally just the Boys Club. But in the early 1970s it combined with the local Girls Club, and later with the YMCA.

With each merger, the club has grown. It now has nearly 10 thousand members from the Greater Waterville area. And 80% of youth at the club are considered food insecure, meaning when they leave the club on a Friday, they might not get a full meal until they are back on Monday.

Ken Walsh is the club's CEO.

"If we can make a difference in a kid's life, that's what it is because they're our future," he said. "And if they get inspired by coming in the doors, and being part of mentors that we have in front of them, they'll make a difference."

Over the decades, as community needs have changed, so has the club.

Today, it's the largest licensed childcare facility in the state, serving 500 kids every day. Every year, it serves 80,000 free meals. It also has a backpack program for kids to take food home over the weekend.

The club has a sizable endowment, and over the years has gotten more than $25 million in grants from the Harold Alfond Foundation. It's able to offer discounts and scholarship programs for families. And of course, there are ongoing fundraising efforts, like the annual appeal dinner in Waterville Wednesday night.

"Because we level the playing field for kids, we take the haves and have nots, and bring them together [to] change the dynamic for youth in this country," said National Boys and Girls Clubs of America CEO Jim Clark, who was the keynote speaker.

He said that while children and teenagers are facing unprecedented challenges, Boys and Girls Clubs are the solution to many of those struggles — able to support kids on an individual local level.

"And that's what it's all about, that your zip code doesn't have to define what you become," Clark said.

As kids get older, they can volunteer and work in the programs they used themselves. Clark said those who participate in the club tend to be more physically fit, and more likely to graduate high school.

AJ Jarosz and Hattie Bouchard will both be college freshmen in the fall.

Bouchard, who plans to study electrical technologies at Kennebec Valley Community College, said she found friends and mentors through the club.

"It was actually really helpful to help me find out who I was as a person and what I wanted to do later on in life," she said.

Jarosz has been a member for as long as he can remember, his parents started him in swim lessons when he was just three months old. He’ll be a Division 3 swimmer at Oberlin College in Ohio. A lifeguard and swim instructor, he said he's enjoyed getting to mentor younger kids in the programs that he grew up in.

"I think it's cool that I get to give back in the same way that the kids on the swim team used to do for me," Jarosz said.

As for Michaud, she'll study child psychology at Southern Maine Community College, before transferring to a four-year college and getting her master's degree. She said her time in the club helped put her on this path.

Kaitlyn Budion is Maine Public’s Bangor correspondent, joining the reporting team after several years working in print journalism.