By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — It wasn't that long ago that girls were only allowed to visit the city's Boys Club to watch basketball games.
Sure, they could listen to stories about things happening at the club, as told by its members, but they could not be part of the fun.
All of that changed at the start of 2009, when the club changed its name to the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Haverhill. One of the last Boys Clubs in the country to make the change, Haverhill's club took the big step of accepting girls and has flourished ever since.
On Saturday, the club will celebrate this fifth year of serving both boys and girls. The event is the club's fifth annual dinner and auction fundraiser at 6 p.m. at DiBurro's function hall. It will feature guest speaker Ray Bourque, Boston Bruin's great and a Hockey Hall of Fame member. Emcee is Leanne Eastman of Pentucket Bank.
"This is our kickoff event of the year and helps us to provide services to our members six days a week," said Brian Theirrien, the club's executive director. "The money that is raised also helps pay for the operation of Camp Tasker, our nine-week summer program."
The club introduced this annual celebration in 2009, when it opened its doors to girls for the first time since the club was founded in 1906.
"We started with just two girls and now we have 400 girl members along with 425 boy members," Theirrien said. "Our daily attendance went from about 80 kids per day in 2009 to over 250 kids per day now."
For achieving such growth, the club was recently honored by the Boys & Girls Club of America, Theirrien said.
"We beat every other Boys & Girls Club in the country," Theirrien said about his club's dramatic increase in daily attendance.
Claire Ngugi, 9, joined that first year at the suggestion of her mother, who asked if Claire was interested in attending Camp Tasker, the club's summer camp in Newton. It was a great summer, Claire said.
"I swam, played basketball, volleyball and kickball and I made a lot of new friends," she said. Since that time she has been attending the club daily after she gets out of Sacred Hearts School, where she is in fourth grade.
"I love the game room because it has all my favorite games and there's always something fun to do, like table tennis and bumper pool," Claire said of the club. "I like playing against boys and girls ... It mixes things up."
She's also on the club's hip hop dance team.
"I love to dance and it's good exercise," she said.
Camp Tasker, on the shores of Country Pond in Newton, was attended daily last summer by 60 boys and 60 girls from the inner city.
McKayla Dingle, 11, a fifth-grader at Consentino School, joined the club two years ago. McKayla is in a group at the club called "Triple Play," which focuses on making friends, getting along with others, as well as how to eat healthy and get exercise.
"I love the art room, which is new and not very crowded," McKayla said. "We draw things and make sculptures."
With the addition of girls, Camp Tasker also saw an increase in average daily attendance, going from 45 boys in 2008 to 120 boys and girls last year, Theirrien said. But that's not the only area of growth the club has experienced in recent years.
"We invested about $1 million in facility improvements at the camp and at the club," Theirrien said.
In Theirrien's eyes, the building at 55 Emerson St. which has long been home to the club has transformed into a community center, where brothers and sisters and cousins and friends participate in a variety of activities and programs.
"We're uniting families to create lasting memories," he said.
New programs that were introduced at the urging of both girl and boy members include cheerleading, dance and ballet. The club's technology center was modernized and expanded, while the club's new commercial kitchen sparked the introduction of a cooking program. The gymnasium received a total makeover too, with new lighting, a new scoreboard, a refinished floor and other enhancements.
Tyresse Gutierrez, 11, a sixth-grader at Consentino School, said he loves playing basketball on the gym's refinished floor.
"The girls cheer us on during games," Tyresse said. "And I like the food and the snacks."
At one point during Saturday's celebration, the club will introduce 60 boy and girl members for a 20-minute flurry of presentations on what they're doing at the club these days. Kids on the dance and cheerleading teams will perform a brief program. Kids in the cooking program will distribute samples of their baked goods. Kids in the honor roll club will distribute report cards asking guests to answer five questions about the event, while kids in the technology program will hand out copies of a year-in-review newsletter they created. Hockey and basketball league players will showcase skills they learned over the past season. Members in the arts and crafts program created all of the centerpieces for the event. The club's teen program will be represented by Destiny Alicea, the club's 2012 Youth of the Year.
"Everyone gets a nutritious breakfast and lunch, while those in the after-school program are treated to a nutritious snack," Theirrien said. "The changes we've made and the great opportunities we've introduced in recent years have been made possible through the support of our 30 volunteer board members, who are business leaders in our community."
He credits local businesses, foundations, individuals and others for their support, volunteerism and donations.
More than 60 live and silent auction items will be featured at Saturday's event, including two tickets to join Ray Bourque in his private suite at a Bruin’s game (donated by Bourque), four tickets to this year's Major League Baseball All-Star game in New York (donated by Major League Baseball) and two "Dancing With The Stars'' VIP passes (donated by the show's host, Tom Bergeron, a Haverhill native).
Premier sponsors of this event are Lowell Five Cents Savings Bank and Alfa Aesar. Major sponsors are Market Basket/Demoulas Foundation, Bradford Labs, Haverhill Bank, NMTW Community Credit Union and Pentucket Medical Associates.
The club has a limited number of tickets available at $75 each. For more information, contact Kathleen Pruett at 978-374-6171 or email@example.com.