By Doug Moore St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Republished with permission from St. Louis Post-Dispatch | View original story
The echoes of bouncing basketballs and adolescent energy ricocheted off the cinder block walls of the gymnasium. About a dozen boys were showing off their shooting prowess.
One wide shot from three-point range hit Prescott Benson in the head. He grimaced slightly, looked for the shooting culprit, then tossed the ball back to one of the boys.
Benson, the executive director here, is part of the shift that’s been underway at Gene Slay’s Boys’ Club for the past few years, a move from mainly recreational opportunities to an emphasis on academics.
Last month, after 86 years, the club’s most noticeable change occurred — girls are now being enrolled in the after-school programs. Next month, the Boys’ Club, based in Soulard, will officially change its name to reflect that girls are welcome too.
It is the last boys club in the region to bring girls into the fold, said Andy Blassie, board president of the Slay club.
“We’re proud to change and anxious to see what happens,” Blassie said.
To prepare for the girls, the club had to provide bathrooms for them, and a place to hang out. A long-vacant caretaker’s apartment was renovated into the girls’ lounge.
During a recent visit, Maya Mumin, 10, and Dallyss Blakley, 8, were playing a memory card game in the bright, colorful room, still smelling of fresh paint and carpet. Maya showed off some of the jewelry she had made with rubber bands. She gave the room with views of the playground her stamp of approval.
“We get to have space away from the boys,” Maya said.
But Maya and all the other girls that come here have access to all the recreation and academic programs, just like the boys have enjoyed for nearly nine decades.
MORE THAN PINGPONG
The club dates to Oct. 3, 1929, when it opened inside St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School under the guidance of the Rev. Charles P. Maxwell and sponsorship of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
It became the first Boys Club affiliate in Missouri. Within four years, membership surpassed 1,200.
In 1959, after several moves, the club opened in its current spot, a 36,000-square-foot building on 11th Street, not far from the Anheuser-Busch brewery. Not long after the Rev. Maxwell started the boys club, a young Gene Slay was there, working out, playing sports and cementing his legacy as a star athlete, becoming a state high school wrestling champ.
Jill Garlich, Slay’s daughter, said her father attributed his success to growing up at the club. Slay headed a nationwide transportation business and became a political power broker, all while keeping a lifelong relationship with the club. He served as president and CEO from 1993 until his death in 2011 (he was first cousins with St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay’s father).
In 2006, the club was officially named in Gene Slay’s honor.
Slay’s health was ailing his last few years at the helm, but Garlich said her father was aware that changes were underway.
“I know he would be thrilled with everything we’re doing now,” said Garlich, executive vice president of the club.
Benson began as program director, a few months before Slay died. Last year, he was promoted to executive director. He came to St. Louis from Boys Town of New York and holds master’s degrees in pastoral counseling and organizational psychology.
As he gives a tour of the club, where more than 90 percent of the children involved live in poverty, he points out the ball fields, the indoor swimming pool and the gymnasium. But he gets most excited when showing off the library and classrooms with smartboards.
Rightly so, says Garlich. Donors are looking for measurable outcomes to show that their funding is making a difference, she said.
“That’s hard to do if they are just playing pingpong or shooting hoops,” she said.
Benson refers to the club’s reading program. Over a 2½-year period, children who completed it increased their reading skills by an average of 1½ grade levels.
“Certainly there will continue to be recreation,” Garlich said. “They have to blow off steam after being in school all day. But it’s also a good time to get homework assistance because they don’t always get it at school or home.”
OFF THE STREETS
Clubs across the country and the region have long accepted girls. The Herbert Hoover Boys Club began doing so in 1992, known today as Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis. Two years earlier, the Boys and Girls Clubs of St. Charles County began accepting girls. The Gene Slay club has had girls in some of its summer programs, but the numbers have remained small.
“Some of the issues that were facing boys years ago became evident with girls,” said Flint Fowler, president of Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis. That includes the need for structured programs that focus on academic performance and social behavior, he said.
The days of the “swim and gym,” as boys clubs used to be called, are over, Fowler said. “They were there to keep boys off the streets, give them something to do.”
That became even more important, Fowler said, “when school districts started to suffer and children needed to have supplemental activities to do well in school.”
The Gene Slay club served 628 children last year. It is the only one in south St. Louis, which makes it even more critical to open up to girls, Garlich said.
“There are a lot of families out there with sons and daughters and we’re kind of excluding them by not offering services to the girls. As a mom, if I had to take kids to after-school programs, I wouldn’t be going to two places. It’s an inconvenience.”
The switch was welcome news to Cenith West. For the past few years, she has had her grandson at the Gene Slay club and her granddaughter at a day care.
“Day care is very expensive,” she said. “When I would go to the club, I’d ask: ‘When are the girls going to get to come?’ They’d tell me they were working on it. Then I went in and saw a little girl in there and asked ‘Why is that little girl in there?’ They gave me an application.”
As the integration of the club, with its $30 annual membership, continues over the next several weeks, leaders can get a better handle on demand and how to best market the club for the future, Benson said. “We’re going to remain flexible to meet community needs.”
A group of boys playing basketball did not seem to care that girls were now becoming part of the club. They offered a collective shrug when asked about the change.
They just wanted to get back to shooting layups.
Editor’s note: Dallyss Blakley, one of the children in this article, was 7 when the photographs were taken and turned 8 a few weeks later. She is identified as 7 in the photographs and 8 in the article.