When I walked into the Crestmont Boys and Girls Club in June 2011, I had no idea what to expect when it came to the next four years. This would be the non-profit agency I would work for as a requirement of the Cox Engagement Scholarship. I knew my role as an Advocate for Community Engagement would require me to coordinate service-learning between the IU campus and the Crestmont BGC, but I didn't know I would spend hours every week trying to get a kid to sit down and do his/her homework. I also didn't know that I would become a pro at constructive discipline, or the “Slide, Slide, Slippery Slide” hand clap game. I didn’t know what made the Crestmont BGC different from the other Boys and Girls Clubs around Bloomington, and I wasn't aware that the children at Crestmont were going to change my life, but they have.
Every time a fellow IU student learns that I work at the Boys and Girls Club, they immediately say, “Oh, right downtown?” I always have to correct them. I don’t work at the well-known downtown unit (the Lincoln Street BGC), but rather the Crestmont BGC. I always get the same response: “Oh, I’ve never heard of that Boys and Girls Club. Where is it located?” I try to describe the location of Crestmont, but nine times out of ten, no one on IU’s campus has ever heard of the Crestmont Public Housing neighborhood, or has even the slight sense of its location.
When you travel just a few miles north on 17th street, and into the Crestmont neighborhood, surroundings change a bit. The housing seems a little shabbier, and few college students are seen roaming about. The Crestmont Boys and Girls Club is located right in the heart of the Crestmont Public Housing neighborhood, part of the Bloomington Housing Authority. The BHA owns and operates 310 public housing units. It strives to provide safe, affordable housing through partnerships, in the hopes of creating a strong community by eliminating barriers to the community-at-large.
“I know that we have lots of opportunities to serve those from lower socioeconomic statuses – the housing authority ties in so many important connections. If done well, I think it can truly create a respectful referral and support system for all of its consumers,” said Dr. Deborah Getz, Assistant Clinical Professor, IU School of Public Health.
According to Amber Gress, Administrative Director of the BHA, one major factor of lower-income communities – such as Crestmont – is isolation. Often these families do not have reliable access to transportation, so the BHA works hard to bring quality services right to their neighborhood. The BHA manages the Housing Choice Voucher Program, Family Self-Sufficiency Program and the Homeownership Program. It also provides the community with a computer lab, WiFi, various courses and a community building that can be booked for activities. These programs, as well as community partnerships, are vital to the BHA communities. Some of the most important community partnerships BHA utilizes are Hoosier Hills Food Bank, Area 10, United Way, Salvation Army, Centerstone, Indiana Legal Services, Head Start and the Crestmont Boys and Girls Club.
“Without the Club, I don’t think our kids would have a safe, productive place to go after school,” Gress said. “I think parents would be a lot more stretched for time without the club.”
Traneisha English, current Unit Director of the Lilly BGC in Indy and former Unit Director of the Crestmont BGC, discusses the importance of the Crestmont club.
“I think that having a Boys and Girls Club/housing community partnership helps the Club be more visible to the children in that area. It also removes some of the barriers that prevent low-income children from finding quality after-school programming – transportation, cost, stigma, fear, and intimidation.”
The stigma that comes with living in a public housing community must not be undermined. According to Shawna Meyer-Niederman, current Director of Operations of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Bloomington and former Unit Director of the Crestmont BGC, volunteers and service-learners of the Crestmont BGC often arrive with a framework of what things should look like. Sometimes there is a lack of understanding and compassion for the families in the community. It’s important to remember that no one knows exactly what anyone else has or is going through. The Crestmont BGC staff and volunteers are not there to judge, but to bring important resources and opportunities to the youth of the community. Those children still have expectations and are held to high standards. Through consistent mentorship and one-on-one attention, the impact the BGC can have on the children is enormous.
The Crestmont BGC isn’t the only Boys and Girls Club utilizing a public housing community partnership. About 2,000 miles west of Bloomington is Santa Monica, California. Out on the coast, the Mar Vista Gardens BGC operates similarly: through a partnership with the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles.
According to Jesus Gonzalez, Branch Director of the Mar Vista Gardens BGC, one of the biggest challenges of opening their facility in 2013 was proving their commitment and benefit to the community. Now, the club has seen success not only in impacting the youth it serves, but also in strengthening the surrounding community. One thing Jesus noticed about the Mar Vista Gardens branch over other BGC branches was the consistency. They see the same 100-120 kids coming in every day. Similarly, the Crestmont BGC sees the same 20-40 kids attending on a daily basis. It's the close proximity of these Boys and Girls Clubs to the communities in which they serve, as well as the consistency of working with positive role models, that truly changes the lives of these youth.
When I first walked into the Crestmont BGC, I didn’t understand its importance to the Bloomington community. It’s not just a safe place for kids to hang out after school, it connects the children and parents of the neighborhood to resources they might not otherwise have access to – trained staff, arts and wellness programs, empowerment and community events.
“Folks need to come together, and the Boys and Girls Club/housing authority partnership is a good one for making that happen,” Getz said.
Since 1990, the Crestmont BGC has been changing the lives of the kids in the community, and from what I’ve seen, that won’t be stopping any time soon.
“To end poverty, you really want to invest in your youth,” Gress said. “With the Crestmont BGC, they have a unique opportunity for exposure to education. It gives them the chance to create their own path.”