Source: Dallas Morning News

For 160 years, Boys & Girls Clubs have navigated through difficult times in our history, always responding and addressing the needs of kids, youth and families. And this year is no different. With the country facing prolonged school closures, job disruptions and food shortages, the clubs have stepped up and shifted from traditional after-school programming to offering meal services and delivery, childcare for essential workers and virtual learning in a safe environment while maintaining social distancing guidelines.

In partnership with government officials, emergency management, health departments and school systems, the clubs have become a hub for services in their communities. The clubs haven’t missed a beat, supporting kids and families with several challenges that have emerged during this crisis. One thing is for sure — the clubs are making it a priority to provide consistency in young people’s lives. This includes having caring mentors in their life.

As the nation has moved into an almost virtual world — both in the workforce and academically — kids and teens are struggling to stay connected. Youth need caring adults to express their concerns and share their dreams and hopes for the future. This pandemic has only further isolated inequities youth face, and it’s critical for young people to know there are adults who care about their overall well-being. Without a positive influence in their lives, kids can turn to negative influences and get on the wrong path.

In a recent study conducted by Boys & Girls Clubs of America, 90% of club members say they go to a staff member for help in a crisis, and 83% of club members go to a staff member right here in Dallas. Mentors help prevent early drug use, encourage teens to pursue higher education, and promote positive mental health outcomes. In Dallas, an additional 17 school sites are now receiving Boys & Girls Clubs programming to help meet the need in this community. With more than 400,000 trained staff and volunteers across the country, we are filling a gaping need. But there is still so much more we need to do.

COVID-19 has us worried that the pandemic will have long-term impact on young people. The recent events of racial injustices have us worried for our Black youth and other youth of color. Boys & Girls Clubs condemn any act of racism or discrimination. We’ve made it our mission to change the opportunity equation for millions of kids who may not receive the same chance as their peers — sometimes because of their economic status, the color of their skin or other factors that contribute to the cycles of inequity we see in America today.

Between the barriers of COVID-19 and racial injustices, we are seeing an increase of youth struggling with their mental and emotional health, and the digital divide expanding in low-income communities. It’s vital that we invest in our young people. Our investment will support millions of kids across America to help them grow into confident, capable citizens.

Today, there are more than 4,700 Boys & Girls Clubs across the country, on Native lands and on U.S. military installations worldwide. And in Dallas, we have 35 clubs serving more than 8,700 kids and teens. Most likely, there is a club near where you work, live or play. Clubs serve as beacons in your community for so many kids and teens. And we know access, especially today for youth who may be vulnerable to increased negative impacts from the pandemic, can save lives.

To help expand access, we need to continue to advocate for young people with our local and national leaders. We need to be the voice for the voiceless. We need public and private partnerships to stand alongside us in our mission. We need individuals to invest their time in volunteerism. We need a commitment to our kids and teens today that we will do whatever it takes to ensure they have a great future.

The Boys & Girls Clubs organization doesn’t believe in just one approach. We believe it takes caring mentors, a safe environment, and innovative, quality programs to empower youth to believe in their potential. In a Harris Interactive survey, 54% of Boys & Girls Club alumni said the club “saved my life.”

Ask any of our alumni, from Denzel Washington and Misty Copeland to our Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Dallas’ youth of the year Jesus Segovia, each of them credit at least one staff member who changed their life at the club. Many of our alumni can recall the first moment they walked through the “blue doors” at the club. Many can share what challenges they were facing, and how the club gave them the safe space to face their fears head on. Many can tell you the club was like their second home. Unfortunately, some can you tell you the club felt like their only home.

As the nation continues to grapple with these challenges, Boys & Girls Clubs will continue to play a vital role in our communities, providing consistency and structure for kids. We will focus on the areas of supporting the emotional well-being of youth and helping them overcome trauma, helping them stay on track in school and advocating for racial equity to diminish the inequality divide.

America’s kids are facing a crisis like no other. Our young people are depending on us to be a catalyst for change, to be a caring adult that can help provide stability in a child’s life.

Supporting our youth means building stronger communities, deepening economic and social impact for generations to come.

Charles R. English is the president and CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Dallas. Jim Clark is the president and CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of America, headquartered in Atlanta.