By John Toole
---- — SALEM — For hundreds of children and families in Southern New Hampshire, “vibrant Boys and Girls Clubs” is one of the “603 Reasons” the Granite State is special.
This week is as vibrant as the clubs get.
School vacation packs the clubs from morning until night.
Loud laughter and giggling filled a crowded game room yesterday morning at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Salem.
Club members prepared for a field trip to see a movie.
But stop by the club any day and children are learning to swim, playing floor hockey, learning about technology, even completing their homework assignments.
There are sports leagues, including girls volleyball.
“I’m totally not surprised people” would say the clubs make New Hampshire special, interim director Chris Woodby said. “That’s as it should be.”
It’s not just that the club gives kids something to do in a safe place.
“Our programming encompasses the whole kid,” Woodby said.
That means helping to build their character, too, he said.
They learn leadership skills and grow their personalities.
“They are part of programming that stays with them for a lifetime,” Woodby said.
Rich or poor, it doesn’t matter.
“We’re here for every child, no matter what their circumstances,” he said.
Interests don’t matter either. There’s something for everyone, from the kid who likes gym to the kid who prefers the arts.
“We allow kids to be kids,” Woodby said.
About 400 children a day go through the doors in Salem.
Woody said there are more than 2,000 members, ages 6 through 18, plus a preschool program for kids as young as 3.
Children come from all over: Salem, Windham, Pelham, Hampstead, Atkinson, Methuen.
Kayla Cianciulli, 9, is a three-year member, whose favorite activities are swimming and knockout, a basketball game.
Kayla, who wants to be a nurse when she grows up, admits she was a little shy when she joined the club.
“It’s given me more of an education in how to communicate with other people,” she said.
Alfredo DaCunha, 10, of Salem is a four-year member. He still remembers participating in the club’s Halloween parade as a first-grader.
Alfredo said there are so many things he likes about the club it’s hard to list them all.
“The staff is really nice,” he said.
But he knows the club has made a difference for him.
“It’s given me more friends,” said Alfredo, who wants to play in the NCAA basketball tournament when he grows up.
He especially enjoys field hockey.
“It doesn’t matter about winning,” Alfredo said. “What matters is teamwork.”
The Boys and Girls Club of Greater Derry is just as busy.
“We have about 1,500 members, probably 1,000 families,” executive director Art McLean said. “We have members in 12 different towns, mostly in Derry and Londonderry.”
McLean saw that readers put Boys and Girls Clubs on the list of what makes New Hampshire special.
“I wasn’t surprised. We serve a lot of kids and families,” he said. “I was glad to see us on the list.”
It’s not just that kids experience a positive environment in the clubs.
“They are not just at home watching TV and playing video games,” McLean said.
Membership costs $50 a year, though McLean said scholarships are available.
Woodby liked hearing that Alfredo likes the staff in Salem.
He believes that’s one of the reasons the club is special to people.
“We have some people who have been here for 20-plus years,” he said. “Their heart is in it, they are invested.”
Woodby and McLean are personal testaments to the clubs.
Both participated as children.
“It’s a big reason I’m in the role I’m in now,” Woodby said.
He recalls the club in Virginia Beach embedded life lessons, about respect for others and respect for himself, that have lasted a lifetime.
“It was always a place to go where people cared,” said McLean, one of the first children to attend the Salem club. “They had my best interests at heart.”
Later, when he graduated college, the job offer came from the Derry club.
“I jumped at the opportunity,” he said.
Woodby encourages kids who are shy or apprehensive to give the club a try.
He said they will be welcomed by both members and staff.
“Really, this is the place to be,” Woodby said. “Once a kid finds out what he enjoys doing, he keeps coming back.”