Every day after 3 p.m., when the teenagers arrive on their school buses at the Boys and Girls Club, Glenda Wade is there waiting to greet them. Glenda has known many of these kids since they entered kindergarten in Jonestown, a community of about 1,200 in rural Coahoma County, Mississippi. She knows their parents, and many of their grandparents, too.
She knows the challenges they face – academically, economically and socially – and she knows the support they need to overcome them. Because she has experienced them, herself.
“I see some of me in these children,” says Glenda, who has lived most of her life in Coahoma County, one of the poorest in the nation.
“I understand how hard it is, when you are a young man or a young lady, and you don’t have many opportunities available to you. You don’t have money. You don’t have fun. You don’t have any programs to participate in. I know how hard that is.”
Glenda is the unit director at Jonestown’s Boys & Girls Club, which provides after-school recreational, academic, leadership and life skills programming for children ranging in age from 6 to 18.
Since it first opened its doors in 2011, the club has filled a critical service gap in Jonestown, where there are few other structured activities for youth when the school day ends. Previously limited to elementary-school-aged children, this year the club has grown to include middle and high school students – providing much-needed continuity for children who otherwise would have aged out.
The Coahoma County School District agreed to provide bus transportation for the teenagers, who attend middle school and high school in nearby Clarksdale, to the Boys & Girls Club, which operates out of the Jonestown Elementary School.
“The school district has really stepped up for us,” says David Dallas, executive director of Boys & Girls Clubs of the Mississippi Delta.
Glenda says the club’s expansion has been a “wonderful blessing” for local youth. Membership has doubled and about 35 teens have registered for the program. For four hours each afternoon, teens can participate in an array of sports and recreational activities, such as basketball or soccer.
More importantly, club staff provide career development guidance and help prepare the teens for college admissions tests like the ACT and SAT. During ‘Power Hour,’ the kids get help completing daily homework. In programs such as Passport to Manhood and Smart Girl, they learn critical life and leadership skills.
“What we really try to do with our program in the Boys & Girls clubs is focus on the kids’ character development,” says David. “We want them to have fun, but we also want them to know there are people within their community, certainly in their Boys and Girls Club, that care about them. They care about what kind of grades they make. They care about what kind of choices they make.”
The Walton Family Foundation supported the expansion of the Jonestown Boys & Girls Club, as part of our work to provide school-aged children in the Delta region of Mississippi and Arkansas access to safe places and quality programs outside the classroom.
According to a 2016 report, America After 3PM: The Growing Importance of Afterschool in Rural Communities, students who consistently enroll in out-of-school programs show increased academic performance, a greater interest in learning and exhibit more positive behaviors. The report called after-school programs an “integral component” for families in rural America.
The need for programs such as the Boys & Girls Club is particularly acute in the Delta.
In Coahoma County, 35% of residents live in poverty, compared to 14% nationally. The median household income in 2015 was just $28,851, compared to $53,889 in the United States as a whole. Graduation rates fall far below the national level, while unemployment is double the national rate.
“It’s a very caring community that, economically speaking, is poor,” says Glenda. “Like any community, there are problems we are trying to rectify. By starting young with kids, we can help make things better, or inspire other youths and teens make this town great. It has great potential.”
Cranston Hill, who works as the teen coordinator at the Boys & Girls Club, says that the only alternative activity for many kids after school is to hang out on the street.
“They are trying to find a better way,” Cranston says of the teens. “This kind of program seems small to some people, but to these kids, it’s big.”
Glenda understands the obstacles that limit opportunity for youth in the Delta. As a teenager, she earned high marks but dropped out as a senior after becoming pregnant. “I was a stay-at-home mom. My career began later in life,” she says.
Her passion for education eventually led her to become a teacher’s aide in Coahoma County. She wants to help students develop the skills to succeed despite hardships they face.
“Sometimes things happen in life. If you don’t have that support system there, you are not going to be able to pick yourself up. We try to be that support system,” Glenda says. “We’re here to give these kids that extra push.”
Glenda’s work at the Boys & Girls Club is also deeply personal – six of her grandchildren attend. Her 18-year-old granddaughter, a high school student, works at the club as a junior staff.
“We have an open door policy. Any young man or young lady that wants to better themselves, through education or sports and fitness, we try to accommodate them.”