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Improving Life After School, Off Streets

Alexandria's Boys and Girls Club hopes to expand facilities.

On a typical afternoon at the Boys and Girls Club in Alexandria, boys are huddled around a video game next to the front door. They scream as one scores. Girls are in the computer lab quietly checking their e-mail. In the second-floor library, several elementary school students attend to their homework. In the upstairs lounge, teenagers play cards and gossip about friends.

It's a typical day at the club.

"It gives kids an alternative to being out on the streets unsupervised," said Jim Almond, the club's director. "Our kids do better in school, they learn about leadership, they go on field trips — the old saying is that the Boys and Girls Club is 'the place that beats the streets' is true because this is a place where kids can learn from positive role models."

The club operates in a building that dates to 1936 on land that was donated by Robert South Barrett. It was originally a Boys Club that operated on donations from 200 Alexandrians who each donated $60. The club continues to function on donations — like computers and a new wireless scoreboard that were recently donated — but the 1930s-era building is worn with age, and filling the building with a hectic schedule of events and classes is difficult. So the club has kicked off a capital campaign to expand into an adjacent lot and renovate the old brick building at the corner of Princess Street and Payne Street.

"It's actually in great shape — considering that it was built in 1936," said Almond. "It just needs to be modernized."

The club hopes to add new wiring, plumbing, bathroom fixtures and climate control. To maximize use of the adjacent empty lot, the club is planning to build a new two-story building with a teen center, youth lounge, homework area, performing-arts room and conference center. After the older building has been renovated, the club will occupy both buildings, which will be connected by a stairwell.

The campaign has attracted some notable support. Mayor William Euille, who was a member of the club while he was growing up in Alexandria, is the honorary chairman of the capital campaign. Burke & Herbert Bank Chairman Charlie Collum is the acting chairman.

The goal is to raise $3.2 million to cover the cost of the addition and renovation. "That's a conservative figure for what needs to be done," said Almond.

THE CAMPAIGN will be difficult but important. Research shows that the hours immediately after school — before many parents return from work — can be a dangerous time when unsupervised kids engage in high-risk behaviors.

A 2001 study by the U.S. Department of Education estimates that 8 million school-age children are unsupervised after school. Half of those unsupervised are between the ages of 5 and 12 — an age when the kind of positive role models at the Boys and Girls Club might have a dramatic influence in the life of a child.

Fight Crime: Invest in Kids — an organization that includes more than 2,000 law enforcement officials — notes the importance of the after-school hours. Its research shows that the hours between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. are when young children and teens are most likely to commit crimes, be crime victims, be in or cause car crashes, smoke, drink, or use drugs. The organization recently conducted a survey reporting that about 5 percent of violent juvenile crimes occur at noon and 6 percent occur at 9 p.m. At 3 p.m. — when children are unsupervised — the crime rate peaks at 13 percent.

"For me, the Boys and Girls Club was a place to get my homework done. It was where all my friends were," said Charlie Surida, 19, who won the organization's Youth of the Year award in 2001. "If I wasn't here, I would have been out on the streets doing not-so-positive things."

But instead of being out on the streets, Surida was in the club — playing foosballs with friends, doing his homework and learning how to be a role model to the club's younger children.

"The most important thing I've learned here is how to be a leader," said Britney Winbush, who won the Youth of the Year award in 2004. "I enjoy helping the elementary school kids with the math homework and providing a positive role model for the younger members of the club."

Winbush and Surida both mentioned the field trips as one of the best parts of the club's activities. Winbush has taken trips to several colleges, including the University of Virginia, Duke, Hampton College, St. Paul University and North Carolina Central University. Surida traveled to Cuba in 2003 to be part of a Boys and Girls Club basketball team.

"They told us all about communism and how good it is," said Surida. "But I think democracy is better. Maybe that's just how I was raised."

RAISING CHILDREN is often a community effort, and a revitalized Boys and Girls Club of Alexandria would provide a safe place for children and teenagers to unwind after a busy school day. The club also offers a number of classes on several topics: cooking, dance, computer science, crafts and board-game tournaments.

Expanding the size of the club would allow it to offer more programs, and Almond hopes to add several new courses. "Technology Today" would teach Boys and Girls Club members about computers and the Internet. "Smart Moves" would teach kids the importance of saying no to tobacco, drugs, alcohol and sex. "Netsmartz" would give kinds tools to avoid being approached by sexual predators on the Internet.

"We want to eliminate barriers," said Almond. "Not having enough space is a barrier. Having small children too close to teenagers is a barrier. The capital campaign is about getting rid of some of those barriers."