Every child has a story to tell, a dream to follow, a leader within, and the Boys & Girls Club of Pasadena wants to help each of the 2,000 kids it reaches annually to fulfill that potential.
The programs and activities the nonprofit organization has helped craft are more than after-school care — they provide a trajectory to put local children on the path to success, to become productive, caring, healthy and responsible citizens. The kind of kids who will take what they learn back to their neighborhoods and families.
“We change lives here, we really do,” said Boys & Girls Club of Pasadena CEO Lisa Cavelier during a bustling summer day.
Just ask Thomas Macedo, 18, a graduate of Pasadena High School and sophomore at UC Riverside, who recently returned to the local nonprofit to work during its full-day summer program. Macedo had been a club member since he first moved to the area at age 12. He was shy and intimidated at first, he recalled, but over the years gained confidence and participated in leadership courses that helped him become more outgoing.
“I learned the importance of having confidence in myself and being able to relate to other people,” said Macedo, who even won a Youth of the Year award during his time at the club. “I learned that in order to grow, you have to be able to accept the obstacles and challenges that come your way and still chase your dreams.”
Over the years, Macedo faced his share of setbacks. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after some early childhood experiences. Later on, he had to leave his home without even a change of clothes or other belongings when he was still in high school. After several days, fearing foster care or living on the street, he was helped by a mentor at Boys & Girls Club to realize it was time to move on.
“Boys & Girls Club taught me that you don’t have to be blood to be family,” Macedo said, noting that he was welcomed into the home of his club mentor, Steve Austin, and his fiancée, who offered him the stability he needed to finish high school. “I felt like a burden at first, but they stood by me, helped me keep a strong mindset and keep the drive and motivation to succeed.”
Those success stories are hardly uncommon at the nonprofit, which has developed a slew of supportive and fun programs like photography, music lessons, robotics and athletics to keep kids and teenagers engaged, involved and just having fun.
“My whole goal here is for each kid to have a great club experience. They’re making memories, making friends and learning the entire time,” Cavelier said, giving a tour of one of its two centers, the Mackenzie-Scott Branch on North Fair Oaks Avenue. “I’ve been told by teachers and school administrators that our kids are different. They arrive in the classroom with their homework done and ready to focus and learn — they’re just different.”
The club’s programs and activities focus on academic success, healthy lifestyles, character development and leadership training. Homework help, tutoring and high-yield learning activities encourage students to become “self-directed learners.” But above all, kids have fun.
Paulina Margoosian, a 4th-grader at Willard Elementary School, said she loves coming to the club, especially in the summer because she can swim and play sports in the gym. She gave Cavelier a big hug upon seeing her in the hallway.
“They have so many programs and they keep us really active so we don’t get bored, plus we get lunch and a snack, we have tons to do in the gym and they have a really wonderful pool,” Paulina said excitedly. “The teenagers have their own space too. … I can’t wait to be a teenager here!”
That’s exactly what Cavelier likes to hear — one of her goals since taking on the job as CEO this past year was bolstering the teen program and creating a foolproof pipeline to make sure kids reap the benefits that come with maturity at the club. The teen center, apart from being cool with its own pingpong tables, study room, library and games, offers a keystone leadership program that provides experiences focusing on academic success, career prep, community service and mentoring younger club members. A select few can participate in the Youth of the Year program, which also emphasizes life goals, moral character and poise, and public speaking skills.
One of the leaders at the teen center, team director Austin, who helped mentor young Macedo, said he feels passionate about working with youth in the community.
“The biggest thing we can teach here to get them ready to be active and productive members inside our communities, so we can make a change from the inside. Understanding the importance of what they’re going to do makes them more intentional with the steps they take,” said Austin, talking above the clamor of a competitive pingpong game. “Our biggest goal is building these connections for them, reaching these teens that have big ideas but don’t know how to strive for them or how to get there, teaching them the tools and the confidence. They’re our future, so if we invest in them they will invest back into our communities.”
Cavelier, meanwhile, cheered on one of the spirited pingpong matches, and laughed to acknowledge the raucous din of energetic teenagers, adding that during the school year there are often more quiet afternoons. Although the goal is to have as many teens at the center as possible, an empty room is also a good thing, she noted.
“That means the kids are out, busy with their athletic teams or school clubs. That means we’re doing our job because that’s where we want them, out and engaged in the community and being involved. Then they come back here afterward to keep building the foundation,” she said, adding: “Steve does a great job building that foundation for them.”
Boys & Girls Club of Pasadena, established in 1937, serves children ages 6-18, counting on its dedicated staff to keep the kids coming back. Upon arrival as CEO this past year, Cavelier made some changes to the payment structure — an even $10 per week for all kids — that was also intended to help better support staff salaries.
“We needed a little more buy-in from parents, more of a commitment to them coming and to valuing who we are and our phenomenal staff,” she said. “We are really delivering results, you know, we are bringing it. And that is because of our staff.”
Part of assembling that staff involves bringing back former members, like Macedo, to volunteer or work part time in the summer. He’ll miss the Boys & Girls Club family when he returns to study sociology in the fall, he said, but ultimately, he strives to become a social worker, and help kids just like himself when he was having trouble.
He recalled a social worker who helped him pick up the pieces when his home life was spiraling.
“She was very blunt and direct, but I could tell she really cared; she wanted to hear what I had to say and wanted to know what I hoped to get out of the situation. … I was more than a case number. That inspired me to reach other kids like that — that’s how I’d like to be, let kids know they can get out of a bad situation,” Macedo said, recalling that his experience and the staff at the club helped support him through it all.
“I felt loved here as a kid and when I was older, all these little kids were always so happy to see me, it helped me see I could make a difference.”
Cavelier, who lives in the Pasadena area and has spent a career dedicated to nonprofit work, wants to reach more kids like Macedo, and help turn them into future advocates for themselves and other children. She sees the opportunity at Boys & Girls Club as a chance to really make a lasting difference. That includes modernizing the registration system and online payments (creating a bilingual website, no longer filling out huge stacks of paper by hand each year), as well as strengthening the “pipeline” of teenage clients, which can be difficult to attract, and creating better communication with parents, who are now considered “club partners.”
“I personally feel like I have found my home here. I love the staff, I love the families and the kids,” she said. “I want to make an impact on the world for kids and their families in this area.”