Every Friday night during football season in Helena-West Helena, Arkansas, fans of the Central High Cougars will find Michael Boone working concessions for the team’s booster club, grilling burgers and serving popcorn.
It’s a familiar environment for Michael, a former all-star defensive tackle for the Cougars and member of Central High’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
Long removed from his playing days, Michael volunteers his time alongside his dad, Lynn, and mom, Carolyn, as a way to support to his alma mater.
“It’s about giving back, about being a servant,” Michael says.
Michael brings that same spirit of service to his day job as executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Phillips County, a youth service organization serving students aged 6 to 18.
The club fills a critical need in Phillips County by providing structured activities for youth – from academic support to life skills programs and sports – when the school day ends.
The rural county is one of the poorest in Arkansas, with a median household income of $26,600. Almost 40% of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the 2017 census.
“You can’t have too many after-school programs or youth development programs in our community,” Michael says.
“We serve about 150 kids a day, but there are still kids out there who need us.”
The Walton Family Foundation supports the Boys & Girls Club in Helena-West Helena so school-aged children in the Delta region of Arkansas can access safe places and quality programs outside the classroom.
A 2016 report found that after-school programs are integral to youth development in rural America. It showed that students who consistently enroll in out-of-school programs do better academically and have improved behavior.
The Phillips County club stresses healthy lifestyles, academic success and building strong character.
Students cycles through several activity rotations – from gymnasium and game room time to “high-yield learning activities” in the computer lab and arts and crafts.
“Kids have forgotten how to play outside and play with one another,” Michael says. “The club gets them off their phones and active in programs with other kids, learning social and communication skills.”
The club also runs basketball and cheerleading programs and provides instruction in cooking and nutrition and money management.
“When students leave the club,” says Michael, “we want them to have skills they can use in the workforce.”
Michael’s own story serves as inspiration.
Born and raised in Helena-West Helena, he was a standout in football and basketball.
After graduating from Central High in 1996, he attended the University of Mississippi on a full football scholarship, studied executive finance and played four years on a Rebel squad that won three Bowl games.
He was offered a free agent contract with the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens after college, but returned home to work in community development with Southern Bancorp.
He joined the Boys & Girls Club 10 years ago, starting as athletic director before becoming unit director and then executive director in 2018.
Michael considers safety and fun to be key ingredients of the club’s success.
“Safety is more than just a physical space. It’s a mental space as well. We don’t know what kind of day those kids have had when they come through our doors. We don’t know if they had dinner last night,” he says.
“But when they get here, kids see friendly staff. They know they are in a safe space.”
Of life in the Delta, Michael cherishes the small-town pace and time spent with his wife, Michelle, a school teacher, children Audreyahna Lynniece and Michael Jr., and his parents, who are now retired.
He has learned from the example his mom and dad set volunteering and raising money for Central High, which has funded improvements to athletic facilities at the school.
“My parents taught me and my brother to be servants, to help out where you can,” he says. “So every time we have a home game, I am there cooking or waiting on somebody at the concession window. I’m loving it.”
At work, Michael says he wants kids to know “they can make choices that puts them on a positive trajectory” after they leave school.
The job’s biggest reward?
“I walk around with a smile on my face because kids are having a good time,” he says.
“For me, it doesn’t feel like work. I believe it’s my mission in life, to serve and to help. I get to come to the club every day and see 150 kids do something positive in their lives. I am doing what I am supposed to be doing.”