"I wish every community had what you have," Gov. Nathan Deal told Boys & Girls Club of Bulloch County supporters Wednesday at the 10th Annual Steak and Burger Dinner.
About 300 people attended the event in the Nessmith-Lane Conference Center ballroom at Georgia Southern University. No burgers were actually served, but the name is traditional for the dinner where adults share tables with boys and girls on their best behavior. It's a major fundraiser for the organization, which provides after-school and summer activities and education to about 400 children and teens each day.
Deal talked about how he and the Legislature have backed educational programs and increased funding for schools, including an effort this year to reduce class sizes in prekindergarten.
"But we can't do it all by ourselves," Deal said. "Government gets a whole lot more for its money when it works through private organizations. Public-private partnerships actually benefit all of us, and certainly the Boys & Girls Club is a great example of that."
He credited Sen. Jack Hill and other state legislators present with creating a program to "use state and local revenue to magnify the effect of clubs like the Boys & Girls Club."
Now beginning its 15th year, the Boys & Girls Club of Bulloch County, which has always had a waiting list, has begun making plans to build a new facility and relocate. It would allow the club to improve its academic programs, offer more activities and stop turning away many of the children who apply, said Mike Jones, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Bulloch County.
"That part has been a need since the first day that we opened in 2001," Jones said in an interview. "We've always turned people away. Never at any point in our existence have we had the physical capacity to serve every child that wants to participate."
But the approximately $30,000 that organizers hoped to net from Wednesday's $100-a-ticket dinner will help fund short-term needs, Jones said.
"This fundraiser generates unrestricted funds to help support our daily operations," he said.
The Boys & Girls Club of Bulloch County has a 2015 budget of roughly $850,000 and a projected 2016 budget of $1.2 million. Most of the money comes from federal, state and private grants. But these grants, Jones notes, are restricted for use on specific programs, and expire with no promise of renewal.
Right now, one major source is a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant, federal money channeled through the state government. The club operates a 21st CCLC after-school program serving 86 students and receives 209 more children for additional activities after they participate in grant-funded after-school instruction at Langston Chapel Elementary School.
Another 145 regular club members not in those two programs brings the club's after-school membership to 440, all children ages 5-18.
Need for supervision
Giving a slide presentation to the dinner crowd, Jones cited statistics from a national Youth Health Index Survey to point to a need for supervised after-school activities. For example, 66.2 percent of high school students surveyed said they had tried alcoholic beverages and 40.7 percent marijuana, 46.8 percent that they have been sexually active and 17 percent that they have considered suicide.
He then noted some of the Boys & Girls Club of Bulloch County's own statistics.
A graph tracked members' grades by club attendance. Students attending for fewer than 45 days had an average grade of 79 in their school subjects, while those attending more than 135 days had an average of 84.7.
According to the club's 2015 impact report, 93 percent of the children served are from families with incomes below the poverty level, and 61 percent are from single-parent households. African-American children make up 80 percent of the membership.
Staff members, including certified teachers, provide homework assistance and daily science, math and technology activities, as well as arts and recreation.
But the core of the club's work, Jones said, is about mentoring and encouraging children.
The governor took up this theme as he encouraged local people, especially those of retirement age, to get involved.
"Being a mentor is probably one of the most effective things that a young person can have," Deal said. "It provides the support, the interconnectivity that they may not have in their home environment. So I would encourage you on that front, to consider becoming a volunteer."
His wife, Sandra Deal, also attended and greeted the children personally. In her efforts to promote literacy, she has read to students in nearly 500 schools in every Georgia county and school district, the governor said.
The Boys & Girls Club Choir, formed earlier this year and directed by Dr. Tamara Watson Harper, who also directs the Statesboro Youth Chorale, sang during the dinner.
Deal directed some of his remarks specifically to the children.
"I want you to understand, these are people here who care about your future, because your future is going to be part of their future," he said. "They want you to be the best that you can be."
Last week some of the Boys & Girls Club's adult leaders also presented data from their impact report to the Bulloch County Board of Education. They asked the board to consider deeding or leasing the old Sallie Zetterower Elementary School campus on Gentilly Road to the club as the site for its future facility.
The Boys & Girls Club board has expressed interested in several sites, Jones said Wednesday.
"Having a better Boys & Girls Club, a larger Boys & Girls Club, can only expand our impact on this community," Jones told the dinner crowd. "So be prepared. It may be a year from now, it may be six months from now, but you're going to see me knocking on your door real soon as we considering launching a capital campaign to build a new Boys & Girls Club for Bulloch County."
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.