By Katie Bernard
Every day, 460,000 kids walk through the doors of 4,645 local Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA). These clubs are scattered in cities, towns, public housing, and Native lands throughout the country. Clubs also exist on U.S. military installations throughout the world.
BGCA began in 1860, the brainchild of three Connecticut women who wanted to give boys roaming the streets of Hartford a place of have fun, improve their behavior, and raise their personal expectations and goals.
Today, thousands of “clubs” provide an after-school safety zone where kids and teens can have fun through scores of activities that help them succeed in school, develop their leadership skills, and maintain healthy lifestyles. Equally important, the clubs employ a staff of more than 58,000 youth development professionals who run the programs and act as mentors building “ongoing, supportive relationships that foster a sense of belonging and purpose for young people every day,” says the BGCA website.
BGCA is an “official charitable partner” of Major League Baseball. Actor Denzel Washington is a former club member and the BGCA spokesperson since 1993.
John Miller has worked for BGCA for 32 years, almost right out of college. His title is Senior Vice President, Field Services; but he wears several hats. Miller leads five regional service teams, heads the Business Support and Conference and Events teams, and manages BGCA’s Annual National Conference.
Miller currently serves as a Trustee of 501(c) Agencies Trust. 501(c) Agencies Trust is administered by 501(c) Services.
Miller began his BGCA career soon after college as Summer Camp Program Director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Toledo, Ohio. He joined the national organization in 1996 as a Regional Service Director for the Midwest Region.
During an interview with 501c.com, Miller talked about his work with BGCA and why he’s devoted his professional life to helping kids grow and thrive.
What is the Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s mission?
Our mission is to enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to realize their full potential. It’s to be able to say regardless of circumstances, we want to be the support system that helps children build resilience. We create a safe environment that supports kids developing a strong, caring relationship with an adult volunteer. Because of this relationship, safe environment, fun and engaging programs, and high expectations Club members build the skills, values, and resiliency to be successful.
What was your boyhood like?
I grew up Hopkinsville, Kentucky. My father died when I was 12, and I was raised in a large family of eight kids with a single parent, my mother. Of course, there were challenges associated with that. We didn’t have a Boys & Girls Club in my hometown, though as a Boys & Girls Clubs leader in the Midwest we started one in 2004. But I did participate in activities through my school and church.
We didn’t go on vacations. And we all had a strong work ethic and an understanding that everyone worked to support the household. And we had the understanding that just because you want it, doesn’t mean that you need it.
I tended to be well behaved; I always had good manners. And I genuinely wanted to help people.
How could you have benefited from a Boys & Girls Club?
I was no different from the kids we serve today, kids who need to see the fullness of what they can be and need someone to support and help them as they chose what they will be. The Club is for every kid or teen.
Had a Boys & Girls Club been available in Hopkinsville, hopefully I would have found my way there. I was a perfect candidate.
Who were your strong male role models?
My father, uncles, Mr. Peterson, my favorite teacher in high school who taught honors civics. You find qualities and traits in individuals that you want to emulate. I believe it does take a village to raise a child. And I was fortunate that, at every step and through college, there were people who wanted to help me become a success.
Do you think kids today are different from kids in 1860 when the first clubs were created?
Society has changed, and that has forced kids to interact and behave differently. Ultimately, BGCA principles are the same – to help kids reach their full potential, develop resiliency, and to build self-esteem. The strong emotional and social connections built at clubs are the same today as they were 159 years ago. Of course, the activities are different. No one was teaching computer skills and social media etiquette 159 years ago.
What’s the biggest challenge you face when working with kids?
The biggest challenge for me, and for most youth development professionals, is making sure you meet that individual kid wherever they’re at, finding that spark. One size doesn’t fit all. But finding that igniter for that young person is the most challenging and most rewarding part of BGCA.
Which are your most popular programs?
When we ask kids, “Why do you come to the club?’ they’ve got a specific answer. First, it’s because it’s a safe place. It’s fun. And because their friends are there. It’s about the experience, not about any individual program.
How has STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – figure into your curriculum?
It’s not a new thing. But the great thing about STEM programming is that kids are starting to see it’s fun. They also see how it gets applied to professions and careers down the road, in everything from robotics to 3-D printing.
There is sometimes an imbalance of girls in the STEM areas, and we have some programs specifically for girls. But we want every kid to be engaged.
Many youth-oriented nonprofits are losing kids year-after-year, while BGCA grows by 3.5% annually. What’s the secret to your success?
It starts with the relationships that are established in the clubs, peer-to-peer and adult-to-child. Those relationships are core to why kids come to the club every day. There are programs kids find engaging and interesting. The club is the hub of the community.
What’s the toughest thing about running a nonprofit?
The greatest challenge is talent, finding great staff people who are highly engaged and focused, and developing and retaining them. Talent is at a premium. It’s an ongoing struggle to find the best talent, provide an environment where they are challenged and create the systems that will retain them.
How do you find and keep that prized talent?
We have a national postings board that helps us get the word out around jobs. We work with local organizations around their selection process. And we have a pretty robust online and in-person training program that allows people to commit to developing their skills.
You must invest time, talent, and treasure. You must help that person identify what they want to learn and experience; provide them the opportunity to have challenging assignments; recognize their successes in monetary and nonmonetary ways. All those things help people feel better about their day-to-day work. If you do that, you not only retain staff, but you build your reputation and culture so other people want to work for you.