By Owen Charters
January 4 was my five-year anniversary of working in an amazing organization. Of four-and-a-bit years travelling to see the work that Clubs dedicate themselves to, day in and day out. Of seeing communities buoyed up by the role that Clubs play.
The common adage “It takes a village to raise a child” often comes to mind when I think of our Clubs. The phrase comes from Nigeria, where many communities recognize that the job of raising a kid can’t just be left to the parents—many others need to be involved and engaged. However, you can argue that this concept is under threat. Increasingly, it’s not the village that contributes to raising children. Parents seek out larger institutions for child care, education, sports. Often grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other extended family do not live in the same city—or village.
Kim Brooks, the author of several parenting books, including “Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear,” has said: “More and more, we seem to have embraced the idea that protecting children is an individualist pursuit, making parenting a competitive sport rather than a communal responsibility.” There is extensive evidence that communities, neighbourhoods, and even families are more and more isolated. And kids are suffering as a result. We have left the job of raising kids to tired, overwrought parents, and brace them with institutional offerings that don’t provide all that’s needed.
Raising kids should not—and cannot—be a competition. It needs to come back to being the responsibility of a village. If there’s anything we can take away from the COVID pandemic, it’s that parents cannot manage, cannot cope as their world shrinks and shrinks until their family unit is just them (often a single mother) and the children. While necessary right now, connecting via screen can never replace in-person. Our message of ‘Unplug to Connect’ could not have better proof than the challenges realized by the widespread experiment of virtual schooling and virtual programming.
Boys and Girls Clubs are the modern village. We embrace the children that come through our doors. We know them. We know the neighbourhood, the school, the families. We listen. We adapt to what communities need, not creating rigid institutional structures that require conformity.
It is the promise of a village that inspires me. It’s something my wife and I have been seeking for our own kids—they need a program, a group that wraps itself around them, instead of processing them through it. It’s the helping hand for tired parents. The safe place to be. A place to create great futures. To ensure no opportunity is denied and no one is left behind. It’s a human organization—the face of a village.
Too much of what we know is faceless—a process or an institution. Or parents and guardians have to string together a series of pieces—a bit here, a bit over there. It’s difficult to create a village in a society that doesn’t work that way anymore. There is much evidence that the village has broken down—gated communities, increasing segregation of neighbourhoods. Robert Putnam’s seminal work, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” documented much of this twenty years ago. And his more recent work, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” studies how upward mobility for kids is fractured and broken. Canada fares somewhat better, but we are not moving towards creating villages to raise our children.
With opportunity, with possibilities, Boys and Girls Clubs are a large part of the solution. I have had many single parents say that the Club was the other parent in their family. We don’t take away the responsibility of parenting, and we’re not formal education. But we’re everything else that fills in the vital gaps when raising a child. We are there to be that village. To raise kids—and to raise them up.
We’ve got lots of building to do, more villages to create. And despite COVID, despite the challenges out there, we’re ready in here. Five years: some days that seems like a long time, but really it’s the blink of an eye. There’s so much we can do, so much we want to do. And so many faces that turn to us—children, teens, parents, and the broader community.
We’re ready, willing, and able. I’m looking forward to the next five years.