A kids' sanctuary

When I walked into the Heights Youth Club on Lee Road, something in the air was sharply reminiscent. I suddenly recalled the days when my own kids, growing up, spent time at a Boys Club.

Right past the front door, I got a blast of intense physical energy and body heat coming from the children in the gym. The room resounded with the delicious din of their play—at that moment, football. Kids were bounding up and down the floor, giving their all. But no one was out of control. Staff member Brandon Delk was in the middle of this hot contest, throwing passes as the kids stretched and strained for the ball. Delk, a graduate of the club and now in college, exerted a quiet power. That’s the magic of the Boys and Girls Club.

It’s not like school and it’s not like home, each with their own strictures and expectations. It’s that third place, as essential to kids’ lives as cafés, pick-up basketball games or knitting circles are for adults.

After school, the kids—about 70 a day—come through the door, sign in and after homework fan out to activities. They are in their place, a kid’s place. Sure, there’s plenty of adult supervision and they have to behave. But you see in their enlivened, focused faces the pleasure of play. That’s the club culture, and for only $10 a year.

Some of the children have that end-of-the-day look—straggly hair, untied shoes. But they also have that pent-up energy that finds its release in sports, artwork, or taking something apart. That’s when Marvin Rosenberg walks in with two computer keyboards and a toolbox under his arm. "Kids love to take things apart and see what’s inside," he said. "When you retire, you have so much knowledge, you want to share it." Like Rosenberg, many volunteers find their way to this club.

When my children participated, it was for boys only. Now girls have definitely taken their place. Eight-year-old Trinity Williams, in her pink-trimmed boots, plays football with the boys. Between plays, she practices her expert cartwheels and handstands.

Nine out of ten in the martial arts class downstairs, with David Jones, are purposeful, confident girls. They belt out "Kiai! Kiai!" as they practice the kicks and arm movements with controlled power.

Headed by Roscoe Morgan, the club opened in Jan. 2007 in partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of Cleveland. It took a plucky, persevering board to buy, renovate and equip the building, at a cost of $1.6 million. The gym, now with sturdy grates on the windows and basketball hoops, was once the sanctuary of the Heights United Presbyterian Church.

This club is more structured than the one my kids attended. Children must first complete their homework in the computer room, under the watchful eye of volunteer Thomas Johnson. Once finished, they can go to the art room, the gym, or the game room with ping pong, air hockey, pool and foosball. Teens have their own game room upstairs. At 5 p.m. the kids gather for a hearty meal. The day I was there, it was baked chicken, green beans, macaroni and milk from the Cleveland Food Bank.

As I prepare to leave, I see that children are gathered around Martin Rosenberg. Some are studying the underside of the opened computer keyboard; others are popping off the keys with a small screwdriver. Art room volunteer Debra Wherry-Bey poked her head in, "We can use those keys in art for collage," she said.

Eleanor Mallet is a longtime explorer of the nooks and crannies in the Heights. Her column, Observing in the Heights, explores the special people and places in the Heights.

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Volume 3, Issue 2, Posted 2:13 PM, 01.19.2010