How Heights Youth Club got its start
Irene, known as Renie, and Dave Smith have made an indelible and lasting contribution to the Cleveland Heights and University Heights community. The Smiths were two of the visionaries who, in 2004, decided that young people in the community needed a place to not only hang out and socialize but also to learn, and take school and themselves seriously, in a safe and nourishing atmosphere.
Such a venture didn’t just happen. Louise Westfall, the former minister of Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights and co-founder of the Heights Youth Club (HYC), and Louisa and Bob Matthias, members of the church and co-founders of the club, had dreams for Cleveland Heights children and teens.
They wanted to create a club with an after-school program to improve the lives of many young people in this forward-thinking Cleveland suburb. But Westfall and the Matthiases couldn’t accomplish this Herculean task on their own.
Westfall asked Renie and Dave Smith, also members of her congregation, to join the team, knowing that the couple could make things happen. Westfall understood the depth of their devotion to the Heights community and, in particular, to its young people. “I wanted the children in my Cleveland Heights community to have what my own grandchildren have: the opportunity for personal growth, satisfaction and accomplishment,” Renie said.
Between 2004 and 2007, the founders raised $1 million in capital donations from major donors, including Mal and Barbara Mixon, who established a matching fund of $100,000, which Fairmount Church members matched in a just a few months. Peter B. Lewis, John Drinko, Renie and Dave Smith, the Bruening Foundation, the Gund Foundation, the Wean Foundation and the State of Ohio contributed generously, as did the City of Cleveland Heights, which continues to support HYC. The Boys and Girls Club of Cleveland pays for 65 percent of HYC’s operating costs. Lee Weingart, a paid member of the team, also brought in money from many donors.
Everything was moving along miraculously well, the Smiths recall, with the Cleveland Heights Architectural Review Board and the Planning Commission unanimously supporting the plan. But neighbors of the church building at the corner of Lee Road and Washington Boulevard that was to be home to HYC were worried—how would these kids, who would be heading to HYC affect the neighborhood? Reacting to this concern, Cleveland Heights City Council, the mayor and the police chief momentarily stalled these visionaries. Then Pastor Westfall asked her temporarily demoralized group, “But what about the children?”
Once again in high gear, this ad hoc group, with its indomitable spirit, moved ahead to deal with the city’s concerns. Renie Smith, good with people and knowledgeable about her community, served as secretary of the new organization.
She envisioned an annual fundraiser in the form of magical garden parties—Summer Solstice parties—in ten different parts of her eclectic community to inform the residents about the formation of a club where all Cleveland Heights and University Heights youth could gather. As secretary, Renie took voluminous minutes of the progress of the ambitious project. As community liaison, she wrote hundreds of letters asking for support from people outside the Heights community.
At the same time, Bob Matthias was managing the entire building renovation in 2006, and Louisa Matthias, a seasoned math teacher, tutored kids and willingly did anything that needed doing to move the project forward.
Dave Smith, a successful businessman and treasurer for the committee, headed the team that handled every financial aspect: fundraising, managing the balance sheet, sending out massive mailings for donations from a staggeringly long mailing list he compiled, and writing individual thank you notes.
Board members and community luminaries, such as Jimmy O’Neill, passionate HYC supporter and Heights restaurateur, worked tirelessly to reach their goal of renovating the church building to suit HYC’s needs.
Dave Smith said, “The reward is the giving. It’s made us better people—it’s filled up my retirement.”
In 2007, the doors of the Heights Youth Club opened to all Cleveland Heights-University Heights kids—with Roscoe Morgan, the club’s executive director, standing and smiling at the new entrance welcoming eager children and teens. The year was 2007.
HYC, located at 2065 Lee Road, close to the high school, now offers after-school programs for students in grades one through 12. At 2:30 p.m. on school days, 70–90 club members bury themselves in homework during Power Hour, and receive help from the tutors standing by.
Mary Krogness is an author and longtime resident of Cleveland Heights. She now resides in Cleveland.