WILMINGTON, N.C. — Over 100 years ago, Wilmington businessman Col. Walker Taylor decided something should be done to offer occupation and opportunity to the boys he saw running wild outside his Sunday-school window.
The boy’s brigade he started in 1896 spent its time camping and learning military formations.
Over the past century, that small group of boys has evolved into a multifaceted program that spans arts and sports, leadership development, and career- and life-skills-training to occupy the after-school and summer hours of 2,300 Wilmington-area children and teens.
Membership costs are low, at $10 a year, and choices abound at the Brigade Boys and Girls Club, where children can join the swim team, learn alternative-process
photography. and plan a national-service project, all in the same afternoon.
The club serves five after-school sites in Pender County and two in New Hanover County.
Yet resources are always stretched and times are always changing at this affiliate of the 102-year-old national youth organization, Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
Derrell Clark, Brigade’s chief professional officer, says the club relies mostly on word of mouth to recruit new members, and teens are the hardest to attract.
“Right now, we’re in an advanced leadership program with the national office,” Clark says. “One of things we’re trying to do locally is figure out how to attract more teens and, once we get them in here, figure out how to keep them.”
During the summer, the number of adolescents tramping through Brigade’s halls can easily exceed 100.
During the school year, that drops to 40 or 50, Clark says, with many summer members drawn away by homework, jobs and sports practice.
Only 22 percent of Brigade members are in middle or high school. The rest are elementary-school age.
“We’re trying to find out from teens exactly what they want,” Clark says. “Everywhere there’s something for kids to do these days. We have to compete with that.”
Clark believes better staff training could help boost the club’s teen population.
“Every year, dealing with kids just changes,” he says. “We can’t keep sitting in that rut we’ve been sitting in.”
One change the club has faced in recent years is the admission of girls. The national organization began to admit girls in 1990, changing its name to reflect the new policy.
Brigade opened its doors to girls two years later and changed its name in 1996.
“One of the big debates at national was what would happen when you put boys and girls together,” Clark says.
He says the kids adjusted to the change fairly quickly.
The number of female winners of Brigade’s annual Youth of the Year contest, which honors a high-school member for leadership in academics, character and service,
mirrors the club’s demographic make-up, Clark says.
Yet girls still account for only 38 percent of Brigade’s members.
While leadership is a priority at this Wilmington youth club, its programs address boys and girls together.
Clark says the approach to fostering leadership is part of the club’s philosophy of inclusion.
“Most of the time we try our best to keep from differentiating,” he says. “We try to do an all-round course here.”