Despite Loss of Funding, Boys & Girls Club Vineland Remains Open

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VINELAND, N.J. -

Chris Volker, the executive director of the Boys & Girls Club Vineland, wants everyone to know that the club is not about to close its doors due to financial challenges that have recently forced some cutbacks.

When news broke last month that the club, which has been part of the Cumberland County area since 2004, had to cut staff and hours after losing nearly half of its budget, many feared the worst.

“People thought that we were closing our doors,” Volker said. “We’re trying to survive, but we’re just in a rough spot right now. All nonprofits go through this from time to time. We were getting calls with people saying, ‘I heard that you were closing.’ That’s not the case.”

While the Boys & Girls Club is not closing its doors, its funding shortage is real and is having an impact on what the organization can do in the community. Volker had to cut staff recently, trimming the club’s employees from 25 to 21 to cover three sites.

The B&G Club also cut employee hours in an effort to keep most of its programs for children and teenagers going. For now, that appears to be enough to keep most of the club moving forward, but Volker said it has been one of the organization’s biggest challenges to date.

“We have three sites in the county and we keep getting calls to open more,” Volker said. “Some people don’t understand that you can’t open a club without adequate funding and staff.”

The B&G Club operates two sites in Vineland—the Youth for Change Center, at 560 Crystal Avenue, and the Carl Arthur Recreation Center, at 304 W. Plum Street. The club also opened up a third location at the Inspira/Forest Lakes Family Success Center in Commercial Township.

“We just got a call from people in Bridgeton wanting us to open up a club there,” Volker said. “Bridgeton has a tremendous need for us there. I think we’re having a pretty big impact in the county.”

Budget confinements will slow that progress. Vineland’s B&G Club once had a budget of about $500,000 but in recent years it has lost more than a quarter of that as funders have either moved out of South Jersey or cut back their giving to such programs.

“The funding didn’t match our growth so we had to make some cuts,” Volker said. “It’s something that we didn’t want to do but had to do. We were pretty tight already, so it was difficult to cut. We don’t have a huge budget. Losing that funding really hurt us.

“We’re about $320,000 now. It’s not quite half but close. We don’t charge that much for the children to join and some we don’t charge at all because their parents just don’t have the money or they’re not working,” he added.

The club has 520 registered members and a daily attendance of roughly 140. It had to put its Teen Nights on hold, a program that gives teenagers a place to go rather than a shopping center or on the streets.

It has been able to maintain its Skills Management And Resistance Training (SMART) programs dealing with dating issues, alcohol, and drug use. The club also provides homework help, career development, physical fitness and environmental programs.

“Right now, we’re focusing on opioids, which is such a huge problem everywhere,” Volker said. “We’re trying to teach young people some of the negative influence and the importance of living a healthy lifestyle.”

While the B&G Club boxing program and other programs draw quite a bit of attention, Volker said he is particularly proud of its local Youth of the Year program. The Boys & Girls Club of American runs a national Youth of the Year program, with winners selected from the club level, then advancing to state, regional and nationals, where scholarship money is given.

Students can win up to $2,000 locally to $100,000 and a vehicle nationally. Vineland’s B&G Club has produced the New Jersey state winner three of the past four years and one regional winner.

“They have to be involved in some kind of community service, involved with their school and write three essays,” Volker said. “It’s a pretty rigorous process. The young ladies that have won for us would have a tough time going to college without the scholarship money.

“I think the most important thing is the metamorphosis they’ve gone through since they’ve won. It’s been gratifying seeing them grow and succeed because some of them have come from some pretty tough circumstances. That’s all we want, to see them succeed.”

Melia Gaines, 15, a sophomore at Vineland High School, is one of three students running for the local Youth of the Year competition this year. A member of the B&G Club for about 10 years, she said the competition and club has been an impactful experience for her.

“The environment and the people here have been very warming and welcoming,” Gaines said. “I wanted to try something new with [the Youth of the Year competition] and it has been an eye-opening experience. I developed leadership skills I wouldn’t have known I had if I hadn’t participated.

Along with the much-needed scholarship money, Gaines said she has gained the confidence to dive into any challenge—the types of challenges she probably would have shied away from before.

“I’ve learned not to be afraid of anything and not hold myself back because I would be missing so many opportunities if I wasn’t open [to them],” she said. “The Boys & Girls Club is a great place to be and really change their lives. I would tell people that they wouldn’t miss out on anything if they joined and they would really love it here.”

While not old enough to compete for the Youth of the Year program, Jasai Anthony Lopez, 10, a fourth grader at Anthony Rossi Elementary School in Vineland, said he has found a home at the B&G Club.

“My cousins went to the Boys & Girls Club so I wanted to go,” the young Lopez said. “Now, I have fun here with my friends. It’s fun here. It would be hard to find things to do if it wasn’t here.”

Volker said he is determined to make sure the B&G Club is around for young people like Melia and Jasai for many years to come.

“We’re writing grants like crazy,” Volker said of his current fundraising efforts. “We’re also planning some face-to-face asks. I want people to realize that every bit helps. Giving $50 to $100 really can make a difference.”

He said that it is all about keeping the doors open for the youth of Cumberland County.

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