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History of Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Alabama

Over a century ago, the city of Birmingham was a bustling hub of manufacturing and commercial activity experiencing the growing pains of a community that was forging its future in sinews of iron and steel from the furnaces that dotted the landscape of Jones Valley. By-products of the prosperity ushered in by the area's mines and mills were the city's saloons that made up that seamy underside of the vibrant community. Regrettably, those smoky haunts had become magnets luring many young boys who congregated there to pick up jobs as messengers and newspaper vendors. Boys as young as five years old, many of them orphans, routinely hung out near the saloons to snatch an opportunity to earn some money. Others ended up there due to the lack of any organized recreational activities in which they could participate. A group of concerned women decided that something better was needed for those boys.

As the United Way still several years away from making their way into the social fabric of Birmingham life, these women came together in 1901 to address the problem at a Christmas dinner given for the boys by local Judge William R. Houghton. He and the women were joined in their efforts by another Judge, N.B. Feagin, and by Colonel Rufus Rhodes, publisher of The Birmingham News. Together, they founded the Birmingham Boys Club to give the forgotten and neglected youth of the city a helping hand in the form of a hot meal, a bath, and an opportunity to just be a boy.

The Club was first located in two rooms of the old Birmingham City Hall where a school and a recreation center were available to the boys. The facility was later expanded to include a dormitory, employment bureau, playground in the downtown area, a summer camp, and a big brother program for orphans.

In 1905, John Melpolder took the reins as a director of the Birmingham Boys Club. His plans for the Club included organizing a "municipality" to enable the boys to learn how to manage self-government. He also introduced a drum corps and placed the Club's membership into groups. He praised the women who brought the idea of a Boys Club to reality and, despite their limited facilities, noted that, "It was only the personality of the women at the head of the Club who could have done so much in the way of uplifting the wayward youths of Birmingham." In its earliest days, the all-female Board of Managers raised funds for the organization by an annual tag sale on the city's streets. In 1913, the sale raised $2,000.

In 1906 delegates from the Birmingham Boys Club traveled to Boston to meet with representatives from 51 other Clubs to form the Federation of Boys Clubs, which has grown over the years to represent hundereds of local organizations as Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

A number of vacant stores and unoccupied homes were used to house the Club until 1924 when two prominent Birmingham businessmen challenged the Birmingham Kiwanis Club to construct a permanent building for the organization. In that same year, Harry Horner, the general manager of the Birmingham Water Works, leased for $1 a year to the Boys Club a 40-acre tract on the Cahaba River for a camp site. The Kiwanis were joined by the Rotary and Lions Clubs in raising funds for the construction of facilities on the property.

Over the years, the Magic City continued to grow, and the Boys Club became an integral part of life for its underprivileged children. The scope of activities offered by the organization continued to expand, but its founding goal remained the same - to offer the neglected youth of the city an alternative to the streets. In addition to the recreational opportunities available each afternoon at the Club's downtown facility, the boys could look forward to the outdoor skills and social interaction they would learn each summer at Camp Horner.

The Boys Club, like the city it served, shared the same tough times of the Great Depression. As more and more families experienced the displacement and unemployment that characterized the 1930s, youngsters had to bypass the carefree joys of childhood to find any kind of job that would supplement the family's meager income. "My mother was faced with raising four boys by herself during the height of the Depression," notes Bobby Potts, former President of the Boys & Girls Club Alumni Association. "I was the youngest. My mother worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and I collected bottles and cans to turn in for the pennies I could get for them. The Boys Club was the only place we could go to keep us off the streets. The streets were pretty mean in those days. If it wasn't for the Boys Club I would have probably ended up in jail or even worse."

Potts' sentiments are echoed by Carl Wittichen, another alumnus whose involvement with the Club spans more than 60 years. He, like Potts, began going to the Club in the 1930s as an 11 year old learning to swim.

"The Boys Club turned a lot of lives around back then," he states, "and continues to do so today…We've been very fortunate to have excellent management and leaders over the years, including the outstanding staff we have today."

As a result of that inspiration from his father, Wittichen went on to serve on the Club's Board of Directors until his designation as Honorary Board Member in 1995. He, in turn, passed the torch on to his daughter, Linda W. Israel, who now serves on the Board.

By the 1950s, the continued growth of the organization had outpaced its facilities. A new wing, the Charles L. Gaines addition was completed in 1959 and allowed the staff to serve more boys with an expanded scope of activities.

A steering committee was appointed that same year to explore the possibilities of acquiring a new site for the camp. An excellent spot was located on Smith Lake in Walker County, and Mr. and Mrs. J.W. Goodwin very generously donated the 67 acres to the Boys Club for the new facility. Camp Jimmy Goodwin was completed in 1960, and shortly afterwards welcomed its first campers to the facility.

"My dad had passed when I was very young, and my mom was raising the three of us alone. I started going to Camp Goodwin in 1967 when I was five years old, and it really set the course for my life. We could go fishing, camping, swimming and hiking there. We also played softball and had instruction in archery and rifle shooting. The camp was very well run, and the sense of discipline and the responsibility we learned there were very important to us. Things like raising the flag every morning and inspection of our barracks to keep everything neat and orderly. My mothers and I are still active in the outdoor activities we were first exposed to at Camp Goodwin," recalls alumnus Dr. James Deatherage.

In the early 1970s, change was again in the wind for the organization. The Alabama State Highway Department bought the old Boys Club building downtown to make room for the construction of the Red Mountain Expressway. Elton B. Stephens, Sr. stepped forward to donate a site and construction materials for a new facility in the Central Park area.

"The Stephens family and many of EBSCO's employees have been supporters of the Boys & Girls Club for a long time," states Allen Powell, President & Division Manager, EBSCO Information Services. "We believe in the Club's mission and the sense of pride, responsibility, and strong work ethic that the organization instills in our youth."

Powell has firsthand knowledge of the Club's work and what it means to the community. An alumnus of the organization and Youth of the Year in 1981, he has served on the Board of Directors for the past 15 years..

For 40 years, the Club had been successfully led by its director, Herbert "Mr. Pete" Peterson. An avid sports enthusiast, the boxing, basketball, and football programs flourished under Mr. Pete. He is fondly remembered by the Club's alumni for his sense of humor, his ability to tell a good story, and for his kindness and patience. Peterson's retirement led to one of the most important and far-reaching decisions of the Board in the hiring in 1980 of Thomas "Coach" W. Cleckler his wife, "Mrs. C," to those who know and work with them, as the President/CEO of the Club. Coach and Mrs. C quickly immersed themselves in the work of the organization and added a strong sense of leadership and direction to their vision for the Club and its role in the community. Thirty-one years later, they continue in that leadership role.

"I grew up in West End and used to pay a nickel to ride the street car into downtown to play basketball at the Boys Club," Coach says, "but I had never been a very active member. After I was grown, I was working at the assistant principal in McAdory High School when Coach Bill Legg suggested I submit a resume and an application for the position of Executive Directorwith the Club. They hired me and my wife at the same time. As the only two full time employees, we did everything from running the program and hiring the part-time people to cutting the grass, changing the oil in the lawnmower, and serving as custodians at the camp."

Coach and Mrs. C realized that Birmingham in the 1980's was too large for a single facility to service its youth. They outlined a five year plan of expanding the scope and service of the Club and making them more accessible to a greater number of the area's children. As 1990 approached, the Club was growing by leaps and bounds. The Birmingham Boys Club became the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Alabama a change that would reflect a new and expanded mission that included service to girls and the greater Birmingham community. At this same time the Club moved its Clubhouse and administrative offices to Hueytown.

The Nineties saw the footprint of the Club grow from one Club and a Camp to a total of seven Clubs. With Camp Jimmy Goodwin being in Walker County the Club was able to open up a second Clubhouse in Jasper providing a quality afterschool program to many of the same children who spent their summer days at the Camp. A great partnership began with Jefferson County Public Housing , Jasper Public Housing and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Alabama to open Clubs in Bessemer, Warrior, Brookside and West Jasper Public Housing Communities. These Clubs grew quickly and became very successful helping many of the children who truly need the Club the most.

As the Clubs grew it became evident to the Board of Directors that another full service Club was needed – this time on the eastern side of Birmingham. The John A. Williamson Club opened in 1997 in the Clay/Chalkville community thanks to the generosity of so many community leaders and businesses.

As the 21st Century dawned and the world changed all around us, the Club's focus remained constant - to be that place where a child can feel safe, loved, and can develop into a successful adult. In 2001, United Way of Central Alabama introduced the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Alabama to the Bridge Builders of Pell City. This collaboration allowed the Club's footprint to again grown into another county with the opening of the Bridge Builders Boys & Girls Club of Pell City. This club flourished quickly and became a premier club for its size in our region of the country.

One of the many things Club members are taught is that with hard work, anything is possible. Those words became reality when on a warm day in April, Ruben Studdard walked through the gym doors of the Boys & Girls Club of Hueytown/Pleasant Grove to greet the members and give them a chance to be on American Idol with him. The excitement built in the weeks ahead as Ruben was named the 2nd American Idol and then a year later was inducted into the Boys & Girls Clubs of America's Hall of Fame. "I am one of the many success stories that have come from the Club," Ruben stated in his acceptance speech. "There are many doctors, lawyers, and policemen who came through the Club just like I did and are making an impact in their communities. We are all privileged to have been a part of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Alabama.

Two years ago, the Club's footprint grew once again to add a fourth county to our service area with the addition of the Boys & Girls Club of Montevallo. This Club was truly built by a "grass roots" organization of community members who saw a need and discovered the answer with the Boys & Girls Clubs.

On May 28, 2013, our Club grew again with the opening of the Tom and Gean Cleckler Teen Center.  This state of the art building will open up a new world of programming opportunities for youth ages 13 -18.  Members of the Cleckler Teen Center will establish healthy lifestyle habits, participate in service projects and will be assured that they will graduate from High School with a plan for their future.


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